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23 Jun 2010 : Column 345

Let me deal briefly with Europe. The Opposition now claim that we should not look over our shoulder at what is happening in Spain, Portugal or Greece, but I think it is wise to recognise the folly of what would have happened if Tony Blair had had his way when Labour were in power. I am still astonished that it has taken until, I think, last week to close the office of preparation for entering the euro. That is absolutely barmy. It is worth pointing out that if we had wanted to join the euro club, the maximum budget deficit would have been 3% of GDP in any year. In 2009, Greece's budget deficit was running at 13.6%. We came in at 11.2%, so there are some similarities.

It is recognised that the eurozone is in a mess because of trading patterns. After joining the club in 1999, Germany's exports to Greece increased by 133%, and the Germans are no doubt delighted about that. However, Greek exports to Germany increased by only 13%, so the system is one way. Not all those exports have been paid for, and that is probably why Germany feels obliged to help with the Greek debt situation. Part of the problem is also that the Mediterranean countries are not as open as they should be, and skewed the stats in order to join the club in the first place. That is why we were wise to stay out of the eurozone. With such huge fiscal disparities, the 16 economies that share the single currency face a massive reality check. In its current form, the euro could be finished.

Let me turn to specific Budget measures. I am pleased that the Office for Budget Responsibility has been created. I am also pleased by efforts to restore the pension link to earnings. My constituency has many elderly people, as does wider Dorset, and we have called for the measure for a long time. I also want to dismiss a myth from the election campaign that the Conservatives would get rid of winter fuel payments and free bus travel. Such scaremongering was completely out of order, and I am glad to say that the provisions are still in place.

Several hon. Members rose -

Mr Ellwood: Here we go again. I give way to the hon. Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies).

Huw Irranca-Davies: I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising that point, because I heard his party on many occasions in opposition deride winter fuel payments, child tax credits and child trust funds as a waste of money. Therefore, it was reasonable for us to scare the horses, and it was right that the Prime Minister was forced to do a dramatic U-turn.

Mr Ellwood: The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point. We all understand that things are said in the Chamber that perhaps cannot be said outside. During the election, however, the Prime Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr Cameron), made it very clear that we had no truck with the idea of getting rid of the winter fuel allowance or free bus passes. He even said that in the debate with the then Prime Minister, and yet Labour still put out scaremongering leaflets. When we get into election mode, let us have a bit more honesty. Does the hon. Gentleman wish to intervene again or has he given up?

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I also welcome the freeze on council tax, and I am pleased that Bournemouth borough council has met the rules on that. It is important that there is a relationship to encourage local councils to take more responsibility for their own matters, but to get rewarded for that by Government.

I am pleased with the initiatives on small businesses. They make up 90% of our economy, and we need to look after them. In places such as the south-west and Bournemouth, tourism is important-it is our fifth biggest industry-and we do not do enough to support it. Benefit will come from the lowest ever corporation tax-the main rate has been cut from 28% to 24%-and the cut in the tax rate for small companies from 21% to 20%. There has also been an expansion of the loans guarantee system, without which many good companies were frustrated in getting money from the banks. I am pleased that the Treasury Front-Bench team has realised that.

Fat government will also be reduced. A 25% reduction over the next four years will be very difficult, but government became bloated and far too centralised under Labour. I look forward to a much simpler set-up that gives more power to communities.

This Budget is the most dramatic and far-reaching since the war. Balancing the books must be a priority, but even in these tough times the Budget promotes a cultural shift in Britain, encouraging the individual, the family, the community and the country to take responsibility. Ensuring that the banking sector and financial services are better regulated to avoid a repeat of the economic downturn is long overdue. This Budget is an ambitious effort to reduce the nation's borrowing and repair the damage created by the last Labour Government. Labour will no doubt claim that many of these radical measures can be avoided, while secretly knowing that, had they miraculously won the election, they would have had to implement the very same changes themselves.

Let me end by congratulating the Chancellor and his team on producing such a comprehensive and robust Budget. While recognising the difficulties that it will impose on the entire country, I believe that it is appropriate and overdue medicine to expedite Britain's way to recovery.

3.45 pm

Huw Irranca-Davies (Ogmore) (Lab): I have enjoyed the debate very much so far. It has exposed a fundamental division between our approaches to the question of how to emerge from the recession. Although it has been said that ideologies are dead, I think that it has exposed a fundamental division between our ideologies as well. What those ideologies and those approaches mean to me are the impact on a single mother on a council estate in my constituency or a pensioner who has put a bit away in a house at the top of Maesteg, and it is the same across the country.

I thank the hon. Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood) for reminding me just how vast the gap is between the ways in which we approach and understand the task of resolving the present situation. He began by asking us again to be "all in this together". I hope I shall be able to go some way towards explaining why I cannot join him in that mission.

I knew before the election that if we were unsuccessful and were not returned to government, we could expect this approach. I must say in fairness to the hon. Gentleman
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and his colleagues-including the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr Cameron), who leads his party-that they were frank and upfront. We were not given the detail, but they said that this was what they would do. However, while I have a great deal of genuine respect for Members on the other side of the House-I am not trying to embarrass them-I did not expect that they would end up on this side of the fence when the moment came, and their action has disappointed me. It has exposed a division that will last in the Liberal Democrat party for a generation, which, from my perspective, is greatly to be regretted. I should have thought that we would still have some allies, as we did before the election, along with all the economists who are still saying that this is the wrong action to take.

I must apologise for confusing David Blanchflower and Danny Blanchflower, especially as there is, I understand, a football match going on somewhere at the moment. I am not a great football fan, although I wish England all the best. Unfortunately, Wales has not been in a major competition for about 54 years.

Bob Stewart (Beckenham) (Con): I just want to announce that the score is one-nil, and it is nearly half-time.

Huw Irranca-Davies: Well done England. Keep it going. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will join me in wishing the Welsh team all the best in the repeat match against the All Blacks at the weekend.

I do not often get depressed in this place, but I was utterly depressed yesterday as the Budget statement approached, and not for the obvious reasons. First, I was depressed because we were sitting on the Opposition Benches. We will say what we can, and we will do our best to articulate a different vision of the best way forward and the practical measures that should be taken, but the truth is that we are now in opposition. Secondly, I was depressed because the members of the coalition appear to have closed their minds to any alternative argument. If they are right, and if in a year or two I see that my communities have not been damaged disproportionately by the measures that they are proposing, I will acknowledge that. However, I was surprised to note that-as has already been pointed out-the poverty commitment in the Budget extends for only two years.

Claire Perry (Devizes) (Con): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Huw Irranca-Davies: In a moment.

The previous Government had a long-standing commitment to tackling poverty, and, although they were not succeeding in everything, they were doing a great deal to lift people out of it. That commitment could have been one of the fundamental principles in the Budget even in a time of austerity-a time of "We're all in it together"-and not just for two years, but for the five years guaranteed by the 55% breakaway option. I hope that the hon. Lady will join me in saying to her Front Benchers, "Come forward with the figures that show that poverty is not going to increase for the five-year life of this Parliament."

Claire Perry: Thank you very much for giving way, and I am looking forward to hearing what else you have to say. What you have said so far would, however, have
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much more credibility if you had not represented a Government who tried a different approach for 13 years, with high-falutin' goals to reduce poverty to help your constituents, and who failed miserably in that. Is the hon. Gentleman truly saying that in his view there should be no cuts-that the broken economic model should roll on as before and that that is the way to repair the economy-or does he have some idea of where the cuts should have fallen?

Madam Deputy Speaker (Dawn Primarolo): Order. Before the hon. Gentleman replies, may I just say to the hon. Lady, first, that interventions are supposed to be brief-I hope that all Members will take note of that? Secondly, on the use of "you", may I remind the hon. Lady that her comments are not addressed to me in the Chair? Given that we have been back in the Chamber for quite some time now, I think Members need to come back to addressing each other correctly when putting questions.

Huw Irranca-Davies: My apologies, Madam Deputy Speaker, for not welcoming you to the Chair.

My answer to the hon. Lady's second question is: absolutely not. None of us can resile from the fact that there will need to be not just efficiencies, but cuts and prioritisation of projects and spending, and that will hurt. My fundamental point, which I shall return to in some detail shortly, is about how we do it and when we do it; the timing of it.

I have to say that I could not disagree more with the hon. Lady's earlier point, and neither could most of the child charities or the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. [Interruption.] Yes, we have had criticism for not going far enough, but I return to the remarks of the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) about child tax credits. They can sometimes be complicated. I sometimes have constituents in my office who say, "Can you help me sort this out, because we have letters going back and forth?" I tell the hon. Member for Devizes (Claire Perry) this, however: none of my constituents would do without them because of the material difference they have made to them.

When I send my children to school, I know that if they come home and say they have a trip to go on and it will cost a fiver, a tenner or £20, I can say to them, "Don't you worry. I'm on an MP's salary; it'll be okay." I also know, however, that there are constituents of every Member in this House who will have to make the choice between putting groceries on the table and putting that money towards things such as school trips. So when the hon. Lady says this makes no difference, I can honestly say to her, "Go and look at the statistics. Go and look at the numbers of those who have been lifted out of absolute poverty under the previous Government." If she shares this commitment-as I am sure she does-I tell her to put the pressure on the coalition Government to make it clear before the summer what their poverty targets are, and not for two years, but for five years.

Mr David Evennett (Bexleyheath and Crayford) (Con): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Huw Irranca-Davies: I will make a little progress first, and then give way.

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The question that we should be asking is: how does this country get itself out of the recession more quickly and in better shape, rebuilding manufacturing and the private sector, with minimum damage to society-to front-line services and vulnerable people and communities -and also while minimising job losses, because we have been there before? I have not always been an MP. I used to work in the private sector, and I went into lecturing. When I was a lecturer, three types of essay were put in front of me. There were the poor ones, and I would offer constructive advice and say, "You need to do this to get better." There were the essays that were done very well, and even then I said, "You need to tweak and adjust and do better." There were also the ones that had misunderstood the question. I noticed in the Budget statement yesterday that the headline issue was dealing with the sovereign debt crisis. That was repeated by the hon. Member for Bournemouth East today when he said that the priority is to ensure our financial status to ensure our credit status. Those things are vital, but surely it is at least equally important to avoid the situations that we had in the 80s and at other times. Measures such as the current proposals lead unnecessarily -this is a judgment issue-to greater unemployment than that mentioned in the Red Book. Such levels of unemployment would lead to greater damage to individuals and communities. I really hope that the Chancellor is correct in his approach and that the Liberal Democrats are supporting the right way forward, but I worry that we have seen this all before.

Let us look at some of the detail. The Government are going to adopt the consumer price index for the uprating of benefits and tax credits from April 2011. The effect will be that benefits and tax credits will diminish and wither year after year. On disability living allowance, the Government will introduce the use of objective medical assessments for all DLA claimants from 2013-14. I am waiting to see the detail on that, because extensive work had already been done by the previous Government on welfare reform, medical assessments and the test. The lack of detail is what worries me. Is this approach about using the stick or the carrot? If it is entirely about using the stick, I guarantee that we will be punishing people who are very vulnerable and who do not have a voice to object. If it is about using the carrot as well-our Government were focused on that and I think that the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, who was looking into social mobility for the Government, suggested that measures should be more about using the carrot-where are those resources to come from? The worrying thing about this Budget is that we have no detail, and I should like to see that detail as rapidly as possible.

On tax credits, from April 2011, the second income threshold for the family element of child tax credit will reduce from £50,000 to £40,000, and from April 2012, the family element of child tax credit will be withdrawn immediately after the child element. Therefore, it is not just higher-rate taxpayers who will be hit by the measures; working couples could also be hit. The combined salaries of two people on low to middle incomes will take them out of that.

Let me touch on one other aspect of detail-the cost of housing benefit. Yesterday, the Chancellor used one example to illustrate how the system is broken. Various
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pieces of research could have shown another 100 examples similar to the Chancellor's, but they would be examples of the extremes. Let me put a concern to the House. What will happen if the policy makes families homeless? What will happen when children are dislocated from their schools or their friends, or when vulnerable families are removed from social care packages and support as they flee to cheaper rent areas? Has any thought whatever been given to the effect of the policy on ghettoisation? Was there any discussion in the run-up to the Budget with organisations that represent the homeless, vulnerable families or children in poverty? I would really like to know that.

Steve Baker (Wycombe) (Con): I happen to have worked personally with the Centre for Social Justice in the past couple of years, and I know that colleagues there have put enormous effort into all the areas that the hon. Gentleman has just listed. Of course the CSJ is independent, but the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions is now in the Cabinet. The hon. Gentleman should rest assured that the Conservative party has put enormous effort into all those things.

Huw Irranca-Davies: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his reassurance, but I will be reassured when I see the detail. I will be reassured when I see that this policy will not have the impacts that I have just laid out. We are privileged to be here and to be able to speak up for people. Let us speak up, as I am sure he would want to do, for those who could be disadvantaged by the unforeseen consequences of this response to Daily Mail headlines.

Those are not my words, but those of Bob Reitemeier, the chief executive of the Children's Society. He added:

Gingerbread, the charity for single parents, has said that families having a second child could be worse off by up to £1,200 a year. Chief executive Fiona Weir said:

The concerns are not mine alone, therefore, and I am genuinely not indulging in party politics. I will say well done to the Government if their proposals are right and they work, but my real fear is that they are acting prematurely and going in too hard, when there are alternatives that are not being considered and which I shall turn to now.

The Chancellor and the Business Secretary regularly cite the examples of Canada and Sweden when it comes to cutting deficits. However, I shall repeat until I am blue in the face that both countries acted against a backdrop of strong economic growth in their export markets. Unless I have missed something, that is not available to countries in Europe, or the eurozone.

Other positive elements in the case of Canada and Sweden were currency devaluation and the active use of monetary policy. However, in the first case we have been there and done that already with sterling and, in the second, hon. Members will know that our base rate is already low.

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