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We have had a short debate, but there have been several thoughtful, valuable and eloquent contributions, especially from Labour Members. It is bizarre that Her Majesty's loyal Opposition called a debate on this matter. Opposition days give Opposition parties the opportunity to lay out their alternative stall on what they would do if they were in government, but the official Opposition utterly failed to do that. Let me cite just one phrase from the speech made by the right hon. and learned Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Sir Malcolm Rifkind). He said at some point during his very long contribution that logic is the art of going wrong with confidence. That meaningless and illogical phrase attempts to mask the fact that the official Opposition have no ideas, no policies and no understanding of the issue.
I am happy to welcome the Conservative party's belated conversion to the importance of welfare reform, but most people will share Labour Members' cynicism and think that its newly born interest has more to with short-term opportunism than long-term opportunity. Today's somewhat pathetic attack on our record was a cover for a policy vacuum, rather a recipe for serious welfare reform.
Sir Malcolm Rifkind: If the right hon. Lady is upset by the attack on her record, will she explain what she meant when she was quoted in The Herald in Glasgow as saying that the Government have done "sweet nothing" on the subject of welfare reform?
Margaret Hodge: I am always delighted to put the record straight, so I am pleased that the right hon. and learned Gentleman has given me the opportunity to do so. I make many speeches about the matter and always say that during the Conservatives' 18 years in government, they allowed increasing numbers of peopleup to 2.7 millionto languish on incapacity benefit, without giving those people any help or support to return them to work.
The Conservatives are informed by their lasting values, which lead them to want to slash benefits across the piece so that they can cut taxes. The Labour Government, however, are informed by the lasting values that we have consistently articulated of opportunity for all those who can, combined with security and support for all those who need it.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that Conservative proposals to use the private and charitable
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sectors to deal with the most difficult cases involving incapacity benefit would lead to cherry-picking, if output-related funding were used? Does she agree that the proposals represent an attempt by the Conservative party to divide people into the deserving and undeserving poor?
Margaret Hodge: We certainly would not endorse any policy that cherry-picked people off incapacity benefit. However, the voluntary sector, especially, can play a legitimate and strong role in supporting people on incapacity benefit back into work.
I welcome the opportunity that the official Opposition have given us to remind all hon. Members and, most importantly, the public about the Conservative party's abysmal record on welfare and to draw attention to the Government's successes. I shall respond briefly to several of the contributions that were made.
The hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Laws) added little to the debate. He was good on analysis, but, as usual, short on solutions that add up, especially given his party's most recent commitment not to increase taxation. My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hall Green (Steve McCabe) made a feisty speech and reminded us that the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) was the Minister for unemployment. My hon. Friend highlighted the importance of understanding the nervousness that individuals face on the journey of incapacity benefit reform.
The hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Ruffley) got a lot wrong. I think that he would not take interventions because he did not want to be corrected, so I would like to correct one point for the record. People who move from benefits into work have the entitlement to come back on to that benefit level. Indeed, we are extending the time for that to two years from April 2006 so that we can deal with the insecurity that some people feel.
John Bercow: It is always a pleasure to listen to the MinisterI say that in all seriousnessbut we are entitled to be clear about the historical record. Is she saying that she was misquoted by The Herald in Glasgow in so far as she was alleged to have said
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel) on her passionate and strong speech. She pointed out the importance of work to individuals and the way in which work and well-being are two sides of the same coin. She showed a proper understanding of the issues and the way in which we can bring down the number of people on incapacity benefit.
I agree with the right hon. Member for Wells (Mr. Heathcoat-Amory) about simplification of the benefit system. We are attempting to do that day in, day out, whereas when his party was in government it failed even to think about the measurement of fraud. The Conservatives never measured fraud, let alone took action to reduce it, whereas we have done that successfully.
Let me put on record the fact that the right hon. Gentleman and his party are wrong to suggest that existing benefit claimants cannot take advantage of the opportunities in the pathways to work pilotsthey can, they do, and they are returning to work. It is absolute nonsense to suggest that we are not talking to interested groups about welfare reform. The Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Mrs. McGuire), and I have done that. Indeed, our new Secretary of State has already visited several groups that would be affected by the proposals that we shall put before the House and the country when we publish our Green Paper.
The debate has given us the facts with which to judge which political party is fit to tackle welfare reform. The simple fact is that we are completely divided[Laughter.] No, we are completely divided across political parties on the reasons behind the programme of welfare reform and the purpose of it[Interruption.] Perhaps Conservative Members should listen to this.
Labour Members are committed to our agenda because we see it as a means through which we can unlock opportunity for all so that all can find jobs and individuals can support themselves and their families, realise their potential, enjoy the sense of purpose and self-worth that comes with work and develop a network of friends and companions. We are committed to our agenda because we recognise it as a means of eradicating poverty from British communities and British society. We are committed to our agenda because we understand that by realising individual potential, we can build a stronger economy in the more competitive global environment in which we have to live.
For the Conservative party, the agenda is benefit cuts to finance tax cuts. It is about fostering individual greed at the expense of wider interests and needs. Compassionate conservatism is about dismantling the active welfare state and destroying the support and opportunities that we in government have created. The Conservatives' policies in government created dependency, chaos, incoherence and despair.
The words of the Opposition motion give us a clear indication of their incoherence and direction of travel, whereas the Government's record on welfare reform is one of which we are immensely proud. The challenges that we face in the immediate and long term are complex and important, but the platform that we have built is
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strong, the values that inform our approach are right, and the task of translating those values into programmes is one we welcome and on which we shall deliver. The truth is that the Conservative party has not just lost the argument, it has lost the plot.
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