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Let us remember that this is the Prime Minister who was going to restore trust in politics. Well, promising anything to buy off a rebellion four days before an election and then failing to deliver on those promises is not the way to restore trust in politics in this country.
Nor is it the way for the Prime Minister to dig himself out of the hole he has dug himself into.
So the amendment that we have tabled is designed to underpin the deal that was done last week, not to undermine it. It should be as acceptable to those who are convinced of the Prime Ministers sincerity as to those who doubt it, and as acceptable to those who wish to live in hope as to those who prefer to learn from experience.
The amendment would introduce a sunset provision for the changes made by clause 3principally, the abolition of the 10p rate. It would give the Government the rest of this year to take action and come back to Parliament and report on the measures that they have taken to mitigate the effects of this clause on those who will pay more income tax as a result of the combined effects of clauses 3 and 1the clause reducing the basic rate of tax. When they had done so, it would require a simple resolution of the House that it is satisfied with the statement made to lift the threat of the sunset provision.
The amendment is deliberately not prescriptive. It does not seek to tell the Government how they must address this problem; whom they must compensate and to what extent, or by what means. The requirement for approval of the statement by a resolution of the House is intended to ensure that the package the Government deliver addresses the reasonable concerns that have been expressed in the House.
Steve Webb (Northavon) (LD): The logic of the hon. Gentlemans position is that it would be satisfactory to get rid of the 10p rate, provided that the House was satisfied with a complex compensation package. Surely it is a crazy idea to get rid of the 10p rate and try to compensate various groups through ever more complex means, only to end up spending public money on other groups who did not lose but cannot be separated from those who did. The whole idea is nonsense, and it would be far better simply to retain the 10p rate [ Interruption. ]
In practice, because of the arithmetic in the current Parliament, the only way the Government could fail to secure such a resolution would be to fail to secure the support of the 46 Labour Members who signed the amendment tabled by the right hon. Member for Birkenhead and those other Labour Members of like mind who had not quite summoned up the courage of their convictions by last Wednesday. If the Government deliver those Members what they promised them, or at least a package that they accept as being a fair and reasonable solution in all the circumstances, they will get their motion, whatever the Opposition parties do. But the provisions of the amendment would be the Houses insurance policy against the Government who, with the rebellion off and the elections behind them, could renege on the commitment they have made.
Such an insurance policy is necessary, because the Governments body language, within hours of the deal apparently being done, signalled evasiveness. There was no clarity as to whether everyone would be compensated. There was no confirmation that they would be fully compensated. There was no commitment on backdating
except for 60 to 64-year-olds who will receive a winter fuel payment, where backdating is irrelevant in any case, as the qualifying date is in September. There was a shabby attempt to shuffle part of the burden on to employers by a political interference with the rate of the minimum wage. Perhaps the Financial Secretary will provide some specific and concrete assurances in the course of this debate. If so, that will be yet another change of direction, albeit a welcome one. In the absence of such details and concrete assurances, the House must have its insurance policy.
This is a problem of the Prime Ministers own making, quite literally. It was his Budget; his betrayal of 5 million households on low earnings; his refusal to listen to the advice and counsel of his own party supporters; his arrogance and intransigence in rejecting the possibility that he could be wrong; and his weakness and indecision in first squaring up to the rebels, and then climbing down. He has a track record now. Over the last decade or so, we have seen many offerings from the Prime Minister that do not quite match the fine rhetoric with which they were presented. We have all learnedand it takes a conscious effort now to remember that this was not the case before 1997not to take what we hear in the Budget speech at face value, but to wait until we have trawled through the mountains of small print and press releases before passing judgement. Now the Prime Minister has to live with the consequences of that track record and recognise that many in the House will have been alarmed by the gap between the right hon. Member for Birkenheads version of the deal and the Chief Secretarys comments on Newsnight last Wednesday. They will have been alarmed that they might have sold the pass too quickly, without a clear Government commitment on the extent of the compensation, the amount and how it will be backdated. I hope that they will support amendments Nos. 18 and 19 in the spirit in which they have been tabledas an insurance policy to guarantee that the Government act in good faith.
Without such a guarantee, my hon. Friends and I cannot support clause 3. The Labour Members who displayed such courage last week, and who have now retreated from that position, will carry a tremendous weight on their shoulders if the end result is a package that delivers less than the right hon. Member for Birkenhead has led us to believe that it will.
We all remember 21 March 2007, the final Budget delivered by the longest serving Chancellor of the Exchequer in the past 100 years. Labour Members behind him waved their Order Papers and celebrated the fact that they would finally be rescued from the torment of Tony Blairs leadership, to go instead into a sunlit upland of socialism with a leader who both connected with their base and understood, uniquely, and even better than his predecessor, the instincts of middle Englanda leader who would return them for a fourth term in this Parliament. They all went off excitedly to the Tea Room to discuss the triumph that was inevitably theirs.
The leader of the largest Opposition party in the House got to his feet and said, At last, we have been given a tax cut. He completely failed to notice that the trade-off was that millions of the poorest people in this country, far from getting a tax cut, would see their taxes rise substantially.
The one eminent figure in that debatethe one party leaderwho spoke most clearly on the subject was the then Liberal Democrat leader, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North-East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell), who pointed out precisely the point that has concerned so many Labour MPs in the past few weeks. It just goes to show that there is nothing like an opinion poll or two to concentrate the minds of Labour Members of Parliament. The warning was there and had they stayed to listen to the speeches made by the Liberal Democrats, they would have known that their constituents would be the main losers from that Budget.
Lyn Brown: Does the hon. Gentleman not accept that the number of people who will lose through the cutting of the 10 per cent. band has been over-hyped? Does he accept that some of the poorest people in this country are those who are on low wages but fall outside the benefit banding? The cut from 22p to 20p helps that most vulnerable group.
Mr. Browne: I do not accept that argument. If the hon. Lady had been present for our extended debate this time last weekshe was not, and I appreciate that she has been brought in as the one person on the Labour Benches who is willing to defend this policy, apart from the Parliamentary Private Secretary, the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Ms Smith), who does so under duressshe would know that the Labour Chairman of the Treasury Committee made the point that more than 5 million taxpayers would be net losers as a result of measures in the Budget and that the 2p cut in the basic rate would not be sufficient to offset the doubling of the 10p rate. We must not make the mistake of ever talking about the abolition of the 10p rate as, for our constituents, the rate has doubled.
Mr. Stephen Dorrell (Charnwood) (Con): Is it not remarkable that the hon. Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown) should say that the figures are inaccurate, as they come from the Government themselves at column 1267 on 18 October last year?
Mr. Browne: Indeed; the Institute for Fiscal Studies and the Treasurys own answers have both confirmed figures in the region of 5.3 million losers. I do not think that that is a matter of debate; what we are discussing is how those people can be assisted and how the Government got into this mess in the first place.
Jo Swinson (East Dunbartonshire) (LD): Does my hon. Friend agree that it was entirely unjustified of the Government and, indeed, of the vast majority of Labour Back Benchers completely to ignore and deny the impact of the doubling of the 10p tax rate on the incomes of the low-paid, when the hardship that the measure would cause was crystal clear a year ago?
Mr. Browne: I very much agree. It does not seem difficult to work out that for people who pay 10p in the pound as a marginal tax rate, a doubling to 20p would end up costing them more in tax than if the measure had been left in place, but it obviously took 13 months for that finally to become clear to Labour Back Benchers, which is highly regrettable.
The Prime Minister is a man of massively diminished authority. Last week, he was pacing around the White House pleading with the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough, who is appropriately dressed in black for this occasion, urging her not to resign from her post as PPS and further humiliate him. Last week, one can only imagine the atmosphere in his private meeting with the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field), who has a long track record of making keen observations about his qualities or otherwise. Who can forget the observation:
Allowing Gordon Brown into No 10 would be like letting Mrs. Rochester out of the attic?
He has no empathy with people.
One of the reasons I favour a leadership contest is that once youre in a contest a persons full qualities can be judged in a way that they never are in normal circumstances...A contest would enable us to judge peoples competence not just as Chancellor of the Exchequer but as Prime Minister, which is a totally different position.
That has been shown to be very much the truth, so I can only imagine how the Prime Minister responded to that intimate and cosy chat when a gun was held to his head by the right hon. Gentleman, who threatened to humiliate him.
I imagine that the atmosphere was less than perfect, but that does not justify the euphoria in the Labour ranks. Perhaps something happened in that conversation, and the right hon. Gentleman may tell us what it was when he gets to his feet. I read the letter from the Chancellor of the Exchequer to the Chairman of the Treasury Committee, and I could not understand why Labour MPs were in such a buoyant and euphoric mood last Wednesday afternoon. There are many questionsand many of them have been touched on by the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond)that remain unanswered, and I shall go through some of them.
First, what is going to be backdated in this package of proposals? As I understand it, the specific measures aimed at trying to assist pensioners between the ages of 60 and 64 will be backdated, but there is disputeand it remains unresolvedas to whether other people will receive backdated compensation. Indeed, the right hon. Member for Birkenhead said that the Chief Secretary was badly briefed on the backdating of the compensation package. I wonder whether the right hon. Lady, even though she is not speaking for the Government in this debate, has had time to swot up. It is extraordinary that she should have to be briefed at all on these matters, as one would think that she was at the centre of trying to decide the Governments taxation policy.
Secondly, even if those measures are backdated for everybody, there is the issue of cash flow. There are many people on low and low-to-middle incomes, and if they receive money in November that is backdated
six months, it will not pay todays supermarket, gas or council tax bill, and those are the problems that the Government have not identified or addressed.
Annette Brooke (Mid-Dorset and North Poole) (LD): I should like to take the example of one of my constituents, who is £30 worse off, and is already facing mortgage arrears. Just what are people such as my constituent going to do?
Mr. Browne: My hon. Friend makes an excellent point, which no Treasury Minister has so far adequately addressed, but we await with interest to see whether a rabbit will be pulled out of a hat. We were told to watch this space. We are still watching, but the picture is yet to become fully clear.
Susan Kramer (Richmond Park) (LD): Has my hon. Friend seen in any of the Government responses a solution for my constituent, a young, single, working mother, who has vowed never again to claim tax credits because of the cycle of overpayment and clawback, who now sees that there is no way out from paying a higher tax rate on her very meagre income, and who may not work again?
Mr. Browne: My hon. Friend makes a valid and related point about the fiasco and complication that is the tax credit system. One of the issues that the Government will have to address is that they are replacing a simple mechanism to reduce the tax burden on people on low incomes with a series of far more complex and complicated alternatives. Many of those people may not be adequately compensated, but some will be theoretically compensated, because I will bet the House that the Treasury will budget so that the take-up is not 100 per cent. for those who are eligible to be compensated as a result of the 10p rate being doubled.
Mr. Browne: It is our intention to reduce the tax burden on people who earn the lowest salaries, and we will do that in a number of ways. We propose to reduce the basic rate of income tax, and I would like to see us bring forward measures for the next general election that will also raise thresholds in a progressive way. Tax-cutting can be extremely progressive if the taxes cut are for those on the lowest incomes, who at the moment pay tax to the Government even if they are on the minimum wage and then become eligible to try to claim large parts of it back in the form of various credits and other rewards from the Treasury, which is extremely bureaucratic and inefficient, and many people fall through the net. Our objective is to try to make it both simpler and fairer.
The hon. Gentleman is making a good speech, but there was a simple question to answer so that the country would know where the Liberal Democrats stand. It is clear that, while the Liberal Democrats might want to introduce all sorts of things to make our
tax system fairer, there is no commitment to reintroduce the 10p rate. The message goes out from the debate that none of the major parties is proposing its reintroduction, so we are looking at compensation packages.
Mr. Browne: Let me make this clearer. The Liberal Democrats objective is to ease the tax burden on people with very low incomes who cannot afford it at present. The Government propose to double the 10p rate to 20p for those people, going completely in the wrong direction. We could choose to use the 10p mechanism to assist those people, or it could be done some other way. A millionaire pays less as a result of the 10p rate decision, so I appreciate that it is not a very focused tax reduction for people on low and low-to-middle incomes, but it is a hell of a lot better than what the Government are proposing, which is that that tax burden should be doubled for those people.
Mr. Browne: I have given way twice, so I will try again. It is nice to have a question and answer session on Lib Dem policies, but we are meant to win a general election first. I will give way for a final time.
Mr. Browne: I have explained so many times. We will vote against the clause this evening, and I hope that, if the right hon. Gentleman shares our instincts to help some of the lowest income households, he will join us. I see that many, many Labour Members have come here, I hope for the same purpose.
John Thurso (Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross) (LD): I have been enjoying my hon. Friends vivisection of those on the Treasury Bench. I brought up this matter in the Treasury Committee, particularly with regard to pensioners in my constituency, because they have the double whammy of not only losing out on tax but facing increased costs against which they can do nothing. Is not the fairest way to deal with those pensioners and others who lose out in that way to raise tax allowances, so a policy that we may well contemplate might be the raising of tax allowances, combined with a lowering of the basic rate, which would achieve as good, if not better an objective than simply putting back the 10p rate?
Mr. Browne: I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who has made an extremely attractive proposition. We already know the parameters of the debate at the next general election: the Labour party is committed to its tax and spend proposals and the Conservative party is committed to matching them entirely. The Liberal Democrats belong to the only party with the freedom of manoeuvre to consider exactly the sort of progressive and attractive tax policies mentioned by my hon. Friend. However, let us not get too diverted.
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