Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Willetts: Will the Secretary of State confirm that the winter fuel payment will be £200 in 2005–06 and £150 in 2006–07, and that the council tax payment is £200 in 2005–06 and zero in 2006–07? Are those the Government's figures and plans?

Mr. Darling: The hon. Gentleman well knows that announcements on the winter fuel payment and council tax benefit are made annually, as, indeed, are announcements on many payments. In contrast to what the Conservatives say, it is pretty clear that we have a long record of giving additional help to pensioners. We have made clear our position on the winter fuel payment and on help with council tax. The Tory party's policy and record is poor on such things. He promises to restore the earnings link for just four years. Then it stops. What happens after that? Perhaps he does not know, but if he can tell me, I will share that knowledge with the country.

Mr. Willetts: The right hon. Gentleman has set out plans that show a payment on council tax for only 2005–06, after which the figures for subsequent years are zero, zero. The help does not carry on beyond the first year. We have proposed an increase in the pension linked to earnings, not prices, throughout the lifetime of the next Parliament. Provided that we can carry on identifying savings, we will keep on increasing the basic pension by the rate of increase in earnings.

Mr. Darling: That brings us to the heart of the matter. The Conservatives have promised money to some pensioners—not all—who are paying the council tax, but they cannot afford to do that because they do not have the money to finance the tax cut. They are promising to produce the money immediately after an
17 Mar 2005 : Column 437
election, when they could not possibly have identified any savings. In any event, as we have shown, the savings that they have identified in the James report do not stand up. Some £21 billion—two thirds—of them are already banked and spent elsewhere. One measure, which relates to my Department, is to privatise the theory part of the driving test, but the Conservatives actually privatised that in 1996. They cannot privatise it twice.

Mr. Watts: Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is hard to believe that the Conservatives will restore the link, because they decided to do away with it? They kept it for, I think, four years and then scrapped it. Any pledge that they make for four years is likely to be scrapped and pensioners would be worse off. Will he also address the problem of the poorest and oldest pensioners—something that the Conservatives have not mentioned in anything that I have seen? As I understand it, the Tory plans would plunge the oldest and poorest pensioners into poverty again.

Mr. Darling: My hon. Friend makes two points. The announcement yesterday of our proposals to help pensioners is fairer, better and benefits far more of them. What is more, if the measures are put in place and carried through, as we fully intend them to be, pensioners will know that, in addition to the £200 winter fuel payment, there will also be £200 by way of the council tax rebate. We have a clear record on that over the past few years. He is right to say that the Tory record on helping pensioners is patchy and, in some cases, worse than that.

We have been retuning to the same point on and off. When the shadow Chancellor says:

we have to wonder how, at the same time, Conservative spokesmen can say that they will spend money here, there and everywhere—leaving aside the spending commitments that we know about. As I said, the shadow Chancellor said last Sunday that the difference between us was not small, as the hon. Member for Havant tried to say, but vast. If it is vast, that implies he knows that it will have some effect.

The shadow Defence Secretary has expressed concern about some of the payments. Others have described them as "painful", with regard to getting rid of the new deal, and, last November, as "tough." They cannot have it both ways. Either the reductions do not matter, as the Conservatives try to pretend, or they do. The truth is, as anyone who has ever looked at the consequences of such things knows, if expenditure is frozen, it is necessary to cut back from day one. That is the problem facing the Conservatives, which is probably why so many of them run away from the policies when we remind them of them.

Time and time again, the shadow Chancellor has said that he intends to hold down spending, resulting in—it is worth spelling this out so that people understand it—a reduction of £7.5 billion in 2006–07, followed by a reduction of £16 billion, £22 billion and £27.5 billion, rising to a reduction of £35 billion. No one is going to tell me that that would not make a difference.
17 Mar 2005 : Column 438

As Secretary of State for Transport, I know that, if a Chancellor came to me and said that our expenditure was to be frozen, steps would have to be taken immediately to start laying people off or cutting programme expenditure. It is disingenuous for the Conservatives to suggest that their policy somehow does not matter. One wonders why, as recently as Sunday—surely the policy must still be in force—the shadow Chancellor was able to describe the reductions as vast. How does that square with what the hon. Member for Havant said today? We should be grateful to him, because he confirmed that the difference is   £35 billion, which some Conservatives are trying to deny. In addition, the Conservatives have uncosted commitments of about £15 billion. It would be interesting to take a tour around the country to discover what they would do. Presumably those commitments would have to be paid for by more cuts in expenditure, but no one should be in any doubt that they would make a big difference.

Mr. O'Neill: Is my right hon. Friend not being a little unfair to the Opposition, as they also have plans for selling off national assets that have not yet been recorded in his Domesday book? For example, is it not the case that the trust ports, on which recommendations are made in the James report, have yet to be pulled out of the hat?

Mr. Darling: My hon. Friend is right. I have missed out that aspect of Conservative policy. The hon. Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo), the Conservative transport spokesman, will correct me if I am wrong, but I believe that he went to Dover and said that his party would sell off the trust port. The last time that the Conservatives broached that idea they had a spot of bother in the town, and my hon. Friend the Member for Dover (Mr. Prosser) is very grateful for that intervention.

Mr. Tim Yeo (South Suffolk) (Con) rose—

Mr. Darling: No doubt the hon. Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo) will confirm that it is Conservative policy to sell off the trust ports, particularly Dover.

Mr. Yeo: I am happy to confirm that that is our policy and that the proceeds, which are expected to be well in excess of £100 million, will be invested exclusively in improving the road and railway infrastructure around Dover. The Government, of course, cannot match that promise.

Mr. Darling: The hon. Gentleman must face up to the fact that, according to the shadow Chancellor, his budget is frozen. He will not have any money to spend on those things. The shadow Chancellor has made it abundantly clear that his budget is frozen. As a result, the hon. Gentleman will find that he will have to make cuts to all aspects of transport spending. The amount of the freeze is equivalent to what we have spent on strategic roads over the past three years. He says, however, that he will make it up by selling off the trust port in Dover.

Mr. Yeo: For the avoidance of doubt, we shall make it clear to every single voter in Dover—indeed, as we speak, my future colleague, Mr. Paul Watkins, is
17 Mar 2005 : Column 439
engaged in that very task—that we will invest the proceeds from the sale of the trust port for the benefit of the people of Dover in infrastructure improvements, which are outwith the transport budget that we will inherit. The Secretary of State has just confirmed that the Government do not have any plans to spend any money upgrading Dover's infrastructure.

Mr. Darling: I am pleased to hear that the Conservatives intend to go around Dover promising to sell off the trust port, as that will be music to ears of my hon. Friend the Member for Dover. As I said, the Conservatives had a spot of bother with that policy last time around. I noticed that the hon. Gentleman did not deny that he has a frozen budget—[Interruption.] We have dealt with that already. Is he saying that the shadow Chancellor made a dreadful mistake and has changed his mind? I remind him that the shadow Chancellor said that he had agreed with his shadow Cabinet colleagues, including the hon. Gentleman, that

they do not include the NHS or schools, but do include transport—

That amounts to a freeze. I can see that the hon. Member for South Suffolk is consulting to see whether or not it does. If budgets are frozen, cuts must be made as surely as night follows day. Opposition Members all have the same problem, as they have signed up to a policy that means cuts in public services.

Next Section IndexHome Page