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Mr. Clifton-Brown: My hon. Friend has eloquence when he speaks on behalf of small businesses and even more eloquence when it comes to clairvoyant powers. He has touched on exactly what I was about to say.
The minimum income guarantee system, which was introduced by the Government, is an utter disgrace. Some of the poorest pensioners in the landabout 2 milliondo not get the full MIG because they are too proud, for one reason or another, to claim it. The basic state pension is only £70 a week. The difference between that and the MIG of £105 affects some of the poorest people who cannot afford properly to heat their house or to feed themselves. That is an utter disgrace. The proposal to link pensions to earnings to improve the lot of our poorest pensioners is greatly to be welcomed. I think that the British people will greatly welcome it too.
Mr. John Horam (Orpington) (Con):
My hon. Friend is bringing to the debate a welcome sense of realism about pensions and also a sense of despair among many pensioners. There is a looming crisis, for example, about the possible and uncertain ending of the traditional pension book in February next year. This will affect many very elderly pensioners who are infirm and fragile in their health. When the Government first mentioned
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this, they talked about an exception service. We have heard nothing about that for the past two years. I want a statement from the Government on this looming crisis in the very near future.
Mr. Clifton-Brown: My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. I have no doubt that my hon. Friend the Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts) will refer to the matter when he makes his winding-up speech. Indeed, he is nodding. This is an area where the Government, who claim to be the champion of some of the poorest people in the country, have failed our poorest pensioners. I put it as strongly as that because I believe that that is the case. Something needs to be done. I have no doubt that there will be a clear choice at the next election.
I want to refer to what I call fiscal drag. It is the issue of not uprating allowances in line with inflation, let alone earnings. The example of property taxes is perhaps the most stark. I declare my interestit is in the Register of Members' Interestsas a fellow of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, so I do know a thing or two about property. It is a disgrace that the threshold for stamp duty is set at £60,000 when the average house price is £100,000. When the threshold was set, the average house pricemy hon. Friend the Member for Hertford and Stortford, who also knows a great deal about property will correct me if I am wrongwas £22,500. The ratio is therefore the wrong way round, and a huge number of low and middle earners with modestly valued houses will be caught by the tax for the first time. It is a tax on mobility, including job mobility, which we desperately need to maintain a competitive economy. That feeds through to the allowance for inheritance tax. If we uprate stamp duty to reflect the increase in house prices, we must also uprate the exemption for inheritance tax from £262,000 to about £300,000. That is a much more realistic allowance for inheritance tax.
In his 2002 Budget, the Chancellor forecast net borrowing of £13 billion in 200304. A year later, he said that it would be £27 billion, but it turned out to be £35 billion, or 3.1 per cent. of gross domestic product. In his first tenureand I listened to him hour after hourhe said that he was providing prudence for a purpose. Goodness knows how often we heard those words. Prudence has now jumped out of the windowpoor Prudence has gone, never to be seen again by the Chancellor, who is now running the country into huge debt and does not know how he will get us out of it, except by taxing the people of this country more and more. The tax take has doubled in the past seven years, costing the average family £5,000 each. The British people have a stark choiceeither their taxes are increased significantly under another Labour Government, or they can have a Conservative Government who will hold taxes at the same rate, do their best to reduce them over the cycle, yet produce a better level of public services. The choice is clearI am sure that they will want to vote Conservative.
Angela Eagle (Wallasey) (Lab):
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown), who is clearly drawing up battle lines for the election. I merely point him to the latest polls showing how people may vote in any election in the coming year.
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The themes of the Queen's Speech were clearly security and opportunity for all in a changing world. Before talking about opportunity, I congratulate the Chancellor on his economic record and the achievement of economic stability, which underpins all our subsequent policies as a Government and gives us the chance at long last to invest in and reform our sorely neglected public services, ensuring that we can create a fairer society with opportunity for many people who were left behind in the years of Conservative government. That economic stability has been achieved through political choices about, for example, the independence of the Bank of England and monetary policy, as well as a system of fiscal rules that have enabled us to steer a steady course through internationally choppy waters.
Whatever the Opposition's motivation in attempting to paint a different picture, the economic facts are unchallengeable and need to be put on the record. We have had growth in every quarter for the past seven years, thus achieving the longest period of continuous growth for 200 years. We have had the longest period of low inflation and interest rates since the 1960s, and while the Government have been in office 2 million more jobs have been created. Unemployment is at its lowest for 29 years. In my constituency, there has been a 57 per cent. fall in unemployment, and youth unemployment has been wiped out. Those are the lowest ever figures for my constituency, and I will be proud to campaign on them when the time comes.
Economic stability and growth have enabled sustained public sector investment in our schools and hospitals, child care, skills and the knowledge economy. For example, in Wirral borough, before a Labour Government were elected, capital investment in schools ranged from £1.5 million to £2 million a year. That has steadily risen to £18 million a year, and we have a transformed infrastructure in which our children can learn. In addition, there is a £55 million private finance initiative project that will deliver seven new schools.
Many people would have thought that such a changed environment for my constituents was impossible when the Government came to power in 1997. It contrasts with our experience of 3 million unemployed, 1.5 million households in negative equity and constant cuts in public services, which was the Tory record. We have heard today of the £35 billion of cuts that are the Tory threat and their platform for the next election.
I welcome many Bills in the Queen's Speech. I shall speak briefly about the consumer credit Bill. My hon. Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington (Mr. Plaskitt) made an extremely good speech dealing with the details of the problem that must be confronted in the Bill, including the introduction of summary boxes to deal with confusing interest rates, misleading advertising and the proliferation of complex products with opaque and confusing prices, sometimes with extremely high rates of interest, which are not clear, and even higher rates of penalty charges, which can often drag modest borrowers into serious trouble. We have all had examples of that in our constituencies.
: I had an example of that this very week, with a constituent who took out a loan and has been ill.
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A reduced payment was agreed, but the interest payment is more than his monthly payment, and he now owes quite a lot more than he originally borrowed. Such a state of affairs is a disgrace.
Angela Eagle: Indeed. I hope that with the passage of the consumer credit Bill, we will ensure that such practices are brought to an end.
I want to deal with the prospects for the future, now that we have the economic situation triumphantly right. With the basics in place, we have an opportunity to carry out more structural change and engender greater protection and fairness for all our citizens. I shall spend the next part of my speech talking about the realities of post-neo-classical endogenous growth theory. I refer to the opportunity and anti-discrimination Bills in the Queen's Speech. Translated into English, that high-falutin' economic phrase means that if people are happier and are treated more fairly, they will generally be more productive and work harder, and the economy will benefit. We should remember that and act on it.
I am happy to see in the Queen's Speech a welcome package of reforms promoting protection from discrimination and exploitation for many people who are not properly protected at present. I have in mind the Disability Discrimination Bill and the equality Bill. I shall make a case for extending our activity to introduce what I call a single equality Bill updating the equality legislation that the joint commissions will be tasked with putting into effect.
The Disability Discrimination Bill will help the 14,000 people in Wallasey who suffer from some form of disability, as it will help the 14,000 people, on average, in every constituency who struggle to manage with one form of disability or another. The Bill will complete the Government's manifesto commitment to legislate for full civil rights for disabled people and is to be welcomed for that. It will put in place an end date for transport to be made accessible. It will introduce a positive duty to promote equality, which will help to prevent much of the thoughtless discrimination against people with disabilities that we see around us. It will extend the scope of reasonable adjustment provisions to allow the many hundreds of thousands of disabled people who feel able and ready to work now, and the million or more who aspire to be able to work, practical access to the labour market to enable them to get on with their lives and contribute to both the wealth that we create in our society and their own personal fulfilment and development.
The Disability Discrimination Bill will complete Labour's historic mission to introduce full civil rights, which was begun by Lord Morris of Manchester. The mission is currently being continued by one of the most talented Ministers in the Government, the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Garston (Maria Eagle), whom I have known quite well for most of my life.
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