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9.30 pm

Mr. Quentin Davies (Grantham and Stamford): This debate, although much too short, has proved to be revealing. We have had some interesting and memorable contributions.

The hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood), who is generally regarded as an extremely able Chairman of his Select Committee, made

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a number of good points, several of which I agree with. He made some telling criticisms of the Government and one or two criticisms of the Conservative party. I do not accept, however, that we should not have chosen today for the debate. He said that we should have waited for the Chancellor's statement tomorrow.

The official Opposition understand the Labour Government a good deal better than the Liberal party evidently does. The Labour Government always bypass Parliament; they never make policy statements to Parliament first. If one wants to know what policy statements will be made, one must read the press over the previous few days. If one wants to hold a debate while the matter is still active in the public mind, one must hold it the day before, not the day after, the relevant statement. If the hon. Gentleman wanted to know what the Chancellor will say tomorrow, all he had to do was read the Sunday newspapers yesterday. That is a regrettable state of affairs, and I agree that it is part of the perversion of the government of this country that has been brought about by the new Labour Government. I deeply regret it, but we have unfortunately to respond to such realities, unpleasant though they are.

The hon. Member for Croydon, North (Mr. Wicks), as he always does on such occasions, made a thoughtful speech, with feeling and considerable experience of these matters. I agree with much of what he said. My instincts, like his, are against means-testing. There is an interesting divide in the House. The hon. Gentleman, and my hon. Friends and I, are against means testing, as is the Minister for Welfare Reform.

In his book "Making Welfare Work", the Minister for Welfare Reform states:

On one side, we have an interesting coalition between the right hon. Gentleman, the hon. Member for Croydon, North and Opposition Members, and on the other side the Secretary of State and the Chancellor.

My hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Mr. Flight) made an excellent speech, setting out in graphic detail the perverse effect of the welfare system on the family, and its equally perverse effect in encouraging cheating.

The hon. Member for Corby (Mr. Hope), who seems to have left the Chamber, made a speech which, I imagine, was delivered to him by Millbank tower. When he spoke of 18 years of Conservative government decimating people's lives, he was so over the top as to be utterly ludicrous. No more need be said about him.

My hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) made a characteristically forensic speech and, in a few minutes, succeeded in showing up some of the fatal contradictions in the policy positions taken up by the new Labour Government--and they will prove fatal.

Much the most revealing speech was made by the Secretary of State. I fear that it was clearly a valedictory speech, and it would be inhuman not to sympathise with someone who is about to be fired, for whatever reason. It is only right to allow anyone who is about to be fired a certain latitude in what she says by way of self-justification.

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The right hon. Lady said, "No one will ever go back on the system that I have created." That was a pretentiousness too far. She obviously has a vision of the history of welfare in this country which involves Lloyd George, Beveridge, Chamberlain, Macmillan--I am glad that the hon. Member for Croydon, North mentioned Macmillan in that context--and then Harman. Perhaps she has a vision of the welfare history of the human race which involves Bismarck and Beveridge--and Harman. No doubt she regards her achievements of the past 14 months as eclipsing everything that all those statesman of the past ever dreamed of achieving.

The Secretary of State's imagination matches the extent of the disappointment felt by her colleagues about what she has achieved over the past 14 months, because she was given the important task of delivering three major new Labour promises. The first was comprehensive reform of the welfare system, the second was to decrease the share of national income spent

a reduction of the proportion of national income represented by social security spending--and the third was to deliver a range of enormously bold, extravagant and, I fear, entirely cynical promises to the older members of our society, and to old-age pensioners in particular.

What has the Secretary of State delivered? She has delivered a memorable administrative failure. We have heard this evening about cheques going out and bouncing, and cheques going out two or three times and being cashed, costing the public purse a lot of money. That may seem like small beer, but it shows the general spirit in the Department which she is supposedly administering.

We heard most from the Secretary of State about the one project that she appears to have brought forward--the new deal for lone parents, which so enthused lone parents that three quarters of them did not even bother to respond to letters inviting them to interview. We have agreed that the success rate is about 1 per cent. or, at most, 1.5 per cent. The right hon. Lady was extremely revealing in refusing to tell me, following an intervention, what are her targets; if she has none, she clearly has no control and no way of measuring the success or otherwise of the project. She has reinforced the impression gained by many of us over the past few months that this is nothing more than a gimmick, and a rather cruel gimmick, at the expense of single parents.

On comprehensive welfare reform, we have had a joke--a vacuous document called, again pretentiously, "New Ambitions For Our Country: A New Contract For Welfare". There is no new contract in the content, which is full of platitudes and questions, but has no substance at all. We shall never know whether the Minister for Welfare Reform had a real project in the paper that he put up to the Prime Minister last September, which was emasculated. Such a project is certainly not what has been provided to the British public.

What has happened in respect of reduced social security spending? The Labour Government are more than a year into their term of office, and they have gone in the opposite direction. The working families tax credit could cost up to £4 billion, and although getting people to claim benefits to which they are entitled, such as income support for pensioners, may be a desirable objective, it has a positive cost--about £2 billion, on the Government's own

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figures. All those measures increase social security spending, whereas the Government were elected to reduce it.

Where are we after 14 months? The Government are going backwards: they are not fulfilling their programme. They have an even longer distance to travel in their remaining three or, if they are lucky, nearly four years in government. The scepticism in the country about whether they can fulfil those objectives as well as the other pledges in their manifesto is steadily increasing.

The right hon. Lady was appointed to fulfil a third set of objectives: the promises to older people. Throughout the last Parliament, the Labour party held out the prospect that, if they were returned to office, they would index the state retirement pension to earnings and not to prices.

Ms Harman: No, we did not.

Mr. Davies: The right hon. Lady shakes her head because it was not in the manifesto, but she knows that that is what hundreds of her colleagues were saying for years before the last election and during the election campaign. That has been a sad disappointment to millions of people who voted for the Labour party at the last election, and who had subtly been led to believe by all the spin doctoring that a Labour Government would index pensions to earnings, whereas they never had the faintest intention of doing so.

The Labour party said in its manifesto:

It has done exactly the reverse of its explicit manifesto commitment.

Shona McIsaac (Cleethorpes): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Davies: I cannot give way to the hon. Lady now. If she had tried to intervene a little earlier, I would have been happy to give way to her.

Shona McIsaac: On a point of order, Madam Speaker. I understand that the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies) receives remuneration from National Westminster Securities. National Westminster sells pensions. I believe that he should not have put his name to the motion, nor should take part in the debate if he intends to mention pensions. At the very least, he should declare that interest to the House.

Madam Speaker: Those are matters for the Commissioner and not for debate. I presume that the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies) has entered that information in the Register of Members' Interests.

Mr. Davies: Of course that interest is registered. Occupational pensions are not usually referred to in such debates. Many people have them, but I do not have one with National Westminster. If the Labour party was so worried about my remarks that it put someone up to make such a footling, time-wasting point, I must have been scoring a few runs.

Whereas the Labour Government were elected on an explicit programme of strengthening the framework for occupational pensions, they have done the exact reverse.

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They have taxed occupational pensions in an unprecedented fashion. They are taking £5 billion a year out of personal and occupational pensions through the abolition of the dividend tax credit. They discriminated against occupational pensions as against personal pensions by not increasing the SERPS rebate to occupational pensions. It is not surprising that, as a result of a year of the Labour Government, the occupational pensions movement is declining. That is a great tragedy for our future, and one more broken promise.

The Labour manifesto said that we need higher levels of saving to provide decent retirement incomes. Once again, the Government have broken their promise. They need higher levels of saving, but they have taxed savings. That is hardly sensible.

The House hears almost every day of a new, broken Labour promise. We have heard of at least two today. Much of the talk today, of course, has been about a broken promise involving tuition fees but, over and over again, promises to older and more vulnerable people have been broken.

Let me close with one final new Labour broken promise. On 18 August 1995, the then shadow employment Minister wrote to a number of organisations representing the interests of retired people, saying:

We have not heard a word about that commitment, 14 months into the new Labour Government.

I ask the Under-Secretary, the hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Denham)--who will wind up the debate, and who has responsibility for pensioners, or purports to--to tell the House now whether that commitment is still valid, or whether it is one of the many promises that the Labour Government have broken. Those promises have been broken cynically, but not with impunity, because the public are not so easily fooled. If the record of the past 14 months continues, there is no doubt that there will be a record of broken promises at the time of the next election such as no voter has so far seen.

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