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Opposition Members simply have no credibility left. Government Members are going to take a difficult decision, but with absolutely no pleasure whatsoever. We are doing so because what happened in 2008 was bad, but it was nothing compared with the financial catastrophe that would engulf us if we continued to spend £120 billion a year that we do not have.

Opposition Members and their many supporters outside in the unions and the pressure groups have complained about the bankers. I could complain about bankers as well. Why is it that these people want to put more money into the hands of the bankers by borrowing money from bankers, getting us more into debt and giving them greater amounts of interest? Who are the true friends of the bankers—the people who are trying to keep down their interest payments or the people who want us to be in hock to them?

I do not want to be a Member of Parliament who presides over Britain being turned into Greece, but without the sunshine. That is why I will vote for the Bill today.

3.55 pm

Ian Mearns (Gateshead) (Lab): As someone who has been in this House for two and a half years and who in the past has been unemployed and has held low-paid jobs, I think that the mirth with which parts of this debate are being greeted will be seen with dismay by many people outside this Chamber.

The Bill is yet another example of the Government demonising and punishing the most vulnerable in our society and making the poorest live in greater poverty. The most important fact to take into account is that the Bill does not target only those who are out of work, whom I refuse to refer to as skivers, but those who are in work on low wages. It does not affect just those in part-time work, but people who are in more than full-time employment—people who regularly work long hours or complicated combinations of part-time jobs just to make ends meet.

Mr Kevan Jones (North Durham) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that the problem is not just with the 1% cap? A constituent came to see me before Christmas who had been made redundant last year by a local factory. His wife is a cleaner and he has now taken employment in a local garage serving petrol at night. He will lose about £20 a week when the bedroom tax comes in because the family home of 30 years is now deemed to be under-occupied.

Ian Mearns: I could not agree more. My surgery in Gateshead is regularly populated by people with similar problems. This is a society that Government Members do not understand. In the whole town, the average income of a household is not much more than £20,000 a year. That is the income for the whole household, not for an individual.

Stephen Mosley (City of Chester) (Con): Surely the way to help people on incomes of just above £20,000 is to reduce the amount of tax that they have to pay. What the hon. Gentleman is proposing is to tax them with one hand and give part of it back with the other.

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The way to solve the problem is to do what the coalition Government are doing and remove them from tax altogether.

Ian Mearns: What is shocking for low-income families is the impact of VAT on their real income. Rises in VAT and other taxes of that nature have a disproportionate impact on people on lower incomes.

Mrs Moon: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Ian Mearns: I am afraid that I will not, because I need to make progress.

The shocking statistic is that the number of people experiencing in-work poverty has risen to 1.6 million. Sadly, workers are increasingly reliant on welfare to top up their low wages. The number of families receiving tax credits has risen by 50% since 2003 and 4.4 million jobs pay less than £7 an hour. We have to ask ourselves whether we want to continue to support a situation in which private employers in particular do not want to pay a living wage to the staff that they employ in order to make profits.

As the Secretary of State knows all too well, a real-terms cut will have a much greater impact on low-income households than on higher-income households because basic living costs make up a greater proportion of their income. Even when a cut is proportional to income, it is often felt more acutely by a household on a lower income, as a greater proportion of its income is spent on essentials such as food, fuel and clothing.

On Friday, The Daily Telegraph reported the managing director of Waitrose as predicting that the prices of basic food such as bread and vegetables could rise by up to 5% this year, and in the past few months utility companies have hiked up their prices—the biggest change that I have seen so far is 10.8%. How on earth are the low paid and those out of work supposed to heat their homes and feed their families if their benefits are not increased in line with inflation? Families are already having to make difficult choices between heating and eating.

Make no mistake about it, the Bill is intended to squeeze further the already squeezed. Analysis by Unison shows that in-work poverty is becoming the modern face of UK hardship. It is estimated that the freeze suggested in the Bill will cost an average family with two children more than £1,000 by 2015-16. The Chancellor may point to changes in personal tax allowances as the reasoning behind the Bill, but that will do little to offset the shortfall in the income of working families. The Child Poverty Action Group argues that a working family eligible for both housing and council tax benefit will gain only 13p a week extra—13p!—as a result of the extended personal allowances. We should remember the furore that the 20p upgrade in old-age pensions caused under the last Government, and in this case we are talking about 13p. It is a slap in the face for the working poor and their children.

The CPAG has also spoken of its grave concern about the Bill, arguing that failure to

“uprate in line with inflation will increase absolute child poverty, relative child poverty and the material deprivation”

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of many children. The Bill fails any fairness test with regard to income distribution, and it fails the working poor, the job seeking, the caring and the disabled poor. It will push those at the bottom further down the ladder.

The Bill is shrouded in smoke and mirrors. The Chancellor’s choice of start date to illustrate the rise of out-of-work benefits is 2007, but if we take a longer period, for instance beginning in 1979, we can see that benefits have risen significantly less than wages. He talks about strivers and skivers, but I see something different on the ground—families scraping by in low-paid work or jumping from insecure jobs to benefits and back again. The truth, unlike what the Government keep spouting, is that the vast majority of those who rely on benefits and tax credits are either in work, have worked or will desperately be trying to get into work in the near future. They have made a contribution to society, but their families are really struggling.

Welfare to work is a two-part equation: welfare and work. Where there is no work—in many parts of the north-east there is not a great abundance of work—there must be welfare that is enough to sustain families fairly. I know that in difficult times we all have to think about ways of reducing the bills that face the Government, but let us do that in a way that is proper, productive and economically and socially beneficial. Let us do it by stimulating, not stagnating, our economy; by unlocking the huge investment potential of UK business; and by creating hundreds of thousands of real jobs, building houses and reinvigorating our infrastructure, not by punitively poisoning the minds of ordinary people and punishing the poor.

4.3 pm

Alun Cairns (Vale of Glamorgan) (Con): This is obviously a difficult debate. Any debate that discusses cuts or limits to payments is difficult, and no one should take any pleasure in it. However, two fundamental elements need consideration. The first is the tax credit system as a whole and its purpose, and the second is how benefits in general relate to income. I will briefly take each in turn.

It is hard to believe that until the last general election, anyone earning up to £60,000 a year could still qualify for tax credits. That was nonsensical and crazy. At the time, £60,000 was nearly two and a half times the average salary, but the Government of the day still chose to issue those privileged people with welfare payments.

Sheila Gilmore: The Bill is not about restructuring the tax credit system but about placing a limit on an uprate. Much restructuring has already happened: has not £14 billion already been taken out of the tax credit system? The hon. Gentleman should address the issue of uprating.

Alun Cairns: I wish that the hon. Lady would at least allow me to create a context and develop an argument, and that she would focus on the real issue and allow me to develop arguments on that. To me, someone who earns £60,000 a year is quite privileged and should not be receiving those payments. Nevertheless, that was the position inherited by the Government.

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David Rutley (Macclesfield) (Con): Will my hon. Friend remind the House what steps the Labour party took to bring benefit increases closer to the world of work when it was in office?

Alun Cairns: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that useful reminder that the Labour party did nothing on the issue. Few individuals—if any—would reject a benefit payment, even if in their hearts they were confused about why they were receiving it or uncomfortable with that. The then Chancellor knew well what he was doing and that withdrawing a payment after issuing it in the first place would create a difficult and almost impossible situation—the situation we are in now. Dependency on the state became more widespread, and with that came a significant political shift to the left. The centre ground of politics moved at that moment. It is, therefore, little wonder that £90 billion is now spent on welfare for people of working age.

During the seven years before the last general election, tax credit spend increased by a staggering 258%—that is the context I wished to create in response to the hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Sheila Gilmore). Adding insult to taxpayers’ injury, the tax credit regime was one of the most inefficient benefit systems ever devised, leading to £2 billion of fraud each and every year. Today’s Bill will lead to savings of £1.9 billion over two years, with the pain shared by those recipients whose increases in benefits will be limited. Although £1.9 billion is a significant sum, it does not go anywhere near the increases in spending introduced by the previous Government, particularly leading up to the 2010 general election.

Ian Austin (Dudley North) (Lab): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Alun Cairns: I will in a moment but I want to develop my argument a little further. Presumably in an effort to drive the landscape even further to the left, tax credits increased dramatically—strangely—in the run-up to the 2005 general election, and, by coincidence, in the run-up to the 2010 general election.

Mr Marcus Jones (Nuneaton) (Con): Given the political manoeuvring and increases in tax credits that my hon. Friend describes, which took place under the previous Government, is there a direct correlation between the time that tax credits started, the start of the financial crisis, and the substantial rise in the deficit created by the Labour party?

Alun Cairns: My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. The previous Prime Minister knew exactly what he was doing and he did it for party political ends rather than to support and help families who needed tax credits.

Ian Austin: If the hon. Gentleman is so worried about helping people further down the income scale, why does he support a tax cut for people who earn more than £150,000 and a reduction in the living standards of the poorest people in Britain?

Alun Cairns: That is right on cue because I remember the 50% tax rate as being temporary. Is the hon. Gentleman saying that he is committed to that rate leading up to and beyond the next general election?

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Ian Austin: I would rather see people who earn more than £150,000 make a contribution than take money off the poorest people in Britain, which is what the hon. Gentleman is arguing for today.

Alun Cairns: I would have much more respect for the hon. Gentleman if he told the House that that will be his commitment at the next general election.

Ian Austin: We will announce our policies for the next election but they will not be to give tax cuts to the wealthiest people in Britain while hammering the poorest. That is what the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues are supporting today.

Alun Cairns: It is obvious that there are two options. Either that will not be a commitment going into the next general election, or the Labour Government introduced the only temporary tax rate that would last almost 10 years. I hope the hon. Gentleman will allow me, in the minute I have left, to develop my second point.

On benefits and incomes, it is difficult to believe that out-of-work benefits have increased by 20% since 2007 and that earnings have increased by half that amount. What is the incentive to work? The Labour Government left a marginal rate of tax of 80% for some of the lowest earners and those on benefits. What sort of incentive was that to get people into work? They continue with the same principle in this debate. That inequality must be resolved, particularly given the nation’s debt, the need to encourage people into work and the demand for structural changes in the economy to deliver growth. It is Labour’s policy to increase spending, taxes and benefits and to take us into a further spiral of increased borrowing, spending and taxes. The people will not stand for it.

4.10 pm

Dame Anne Begg (Aberdeen South) (Lab): I have sat through a lot of annual debates on benefits uprating, but I have never seen a turnout quite like this. Very often the number of hon. Members in the Chamber is less than double figures. I hope today’s turnout reflects the importance of the debate. The votes tonight will have a profound effect on many of the most vulnerable and poorest people in our society, whether they are in or out of work. Based on the decisions we take tonight, for some families it will not be a case of whether to eat or heat. Towards the end of the two weeks or the month when universal credit is introduced, some families might have a few days when the children get neither food nor heating, unless food banks, which are increasing, come to the rescue. We should not wish that on our society in the 21st century.

Mrs Moon: An additional problem is that low-income families—some working, some not—will be faced with a decision when their housing benefit is paid directly to them of whether to pay their landlord or feed their children. Does my hon. Friend accept that we are facing a potential explosion in homelessness?

Dame Anne Begg: I thank my hon. Friend, because she sets up my point on how the proposals undermine the Government’s flagship policy of introducing universal credit. Universal credit will create problems—she alludes

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to the fact that it will be paid monthly, and that housing benefit will be paid directly to individuals, who must make the decisions she describes.

One big claim for universal credit is that it will make work pay in all circumstances, but Government Members somehow cannot understand that making work pay means increasing benefits, because the majority of people who receive the benefits that will be affected by the Bill are in work. The group who are out of work and the group in work are often the same people, as my hon. Friend the Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck) has said—they move in and out of work.

The principle of universal credit is to smooth the move into work. The Government are freezing the benefits that make up universal credit statutorily for the next three years. I do not know why we are not having the normal uprating debate. There is no reason why the measure must be in the form of legislation, which makes me suspect that it is a political decision. The freezing of those benefits will tie the Government’s hands on the introduction of universal credit and could undermine it.

In spite of everything that has been said today, tax credits were a huge success. They increased the income of workers on low wages and made work pay. For the first time in at least two generations, the poverty trap was ended—I thought that it had gone for ever. There was a genuine poverty trap created by the previous Conservative Government and to all intents and purposes tax credits got rid of that. Almost everybody was better off as a result of tax credits unless they lived in a high accommodation cost area such as London or they had a large number of children. Work paid. The incentives did not always work because work did not pay enough. Through the Bill, the Government are repeating the same mistake—the incentives to move into work under universal credit will not be high enough to make work pay in all circumstances.

Bill Esterson: My hon. Friend is making an excellent point about the impact of universal credit. I am sure she is aware that the DWP itself says that 1.8 million main earners will be worse off if they take extra hours under universal credit than they are under the current arrangement. The figure for second earners is 300,000.

Dame Anne Begg: Indeed, and Barnardo’s has just published a report which says that families that depend on child care to allow the adults to work will be worse off if they increase their hours. The claims that are being made for universal credit—that it will do away with the cliff edges, smooth the transitions and make work pay in all circumstances—are false. The Bill will make that more likely to happen, not less likely.

Welfare benefits have already been attacked and reduced. We have heard today about housing benefit. Still to come are the changes to council tax benefit, and tax credits have been frozen for the last two years. We now know that universal credit will be set at a level comparable to the benefits that it will replace—income-related job seeker’s allowance, income-related employment support allowance and housing benefit, as well as tax credits. If those benefits have not increased with inflation, by the time universal credit comes in it will be set at a much lower level as a result of the decisions taken today. That

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will mean less support through universal credit for those moving into work. Unless the Government intend to change the tapers and the disregards—and I have heard nothing to suggest that—the difference between being in work and out of work will not be very great, and on many occasions people could be made worse off by increasing their hours or taking work in the first place.

I have always suspected that when the Government said that no existing claimants would lose in cash terms from the introduction of universal credit, it was their intention to reduce what people were receiving before the move to universal credit. This Bill confirms that that is exactly what they intend. They seem to have missed the essential point—to make work pay, the Government need to increase in-work support, not decrease it as this Bill will do. So when universal credit is introduced and fails to be the magic bullet that the Government have claimed—when it does not do all that has been claimed—they cannot say that they were not warned. That is why I will not support the Bill and will vote for the amendment.

4.18 pm

Jessica Lee (Erewash) (Con): It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Aberdeen South (Dame Anne Begg), who brings great expertise and experience to the topic. While I may not always agree with her on how to resolve welfare benefit issues, I always respect what she has to say.

For me and many others in the House, the central motivation for being here and practising politics is simple: it is to try to improve the country in which we live, to give opportunities to everyone, and to create an environment in which businesses can flourish, jobs can be created and young people can be equipped with the education and skills that they need to do well. At the heart of every civilised society is the protection of those who cannot work or care for themselves and need help.

It is unlikely that many people will disagree with that opening statement, but, as ever, it is where the balance falls. It is how fairness is achieved that often divides us in this place. The underlying focus of the welfare state must, of course, be to help to prepare and equip people for a life back in work. My concern is that over the years—in particular, under the previous Government—the admirable and compassionate aim of the welfare state, of getting people back on their feet, in some circumstances provided an alternative lifestyle and lifelong income. That is the issue that the House has to address on Second Reading, and in other legislation.

The work ethic was a central part of my upbringing. I stand here as the first person in my family to study A-levels, let alone go on to university. I am very proud of my background. My mother was the main breadwinner in our family—she was a children’s nurse in the NHS for more than 40 years. My late father worked in shops, in retail, and unfortunately had periods when he was not in work. However, he always remained focused on the importance of getting back to work, and my parents instilled in me a strong work ethic, a desire to work hard and to achieve my goals.

Role models are important in life, and the lack of hard-working supportive role models can make the challenge of getting back to work even harder. We now have nearly 2 million children growing up in homes

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where no one works. Nearly 900,000 people have spent at least 10 years claiming incapacity benefit. It can be difficult to find the self-esteem and motivation to move back into work after such a period of time, but I have seen from this Government a commitment to encourage people, and to provide and facilitate a way to get them back and to reach their potential.

In my constituency of Erewash, many churches and community groups are undertaking excellent work. One church in particular, the Arena Church, undertakes a vast programme of outreach and supportive work. It tells me that it has seen people in the last year blossom, find their self-esteem and move back into employment, often after years of not working.

Mr Kevan Jones: What would the hon. Lady say to the 59-year-old gentleman who came to see me on Saturday at my constituency surgery who suffers from schizophrenia and has failed the work capability test? He has now been sent on a security guard course by his local jobcentre, which is totally inappropriate. Why do we have a system that is so cruel to such individuals?

Jessica Lee: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, and he takes up the case on behalf of his constituent in this House. However, I put the responsibility squarely on his Government, the previous Government, who expanded the welfare state with tax credits and left people on incapacity benefit who for too long were never reassessed. That is unfair to those people and we need to recreate the entire welfare system to improve it.

Mrs Anne Main (St Albans) (Con): It is always worth saying that there is no Government money, only taxpayers’ money. It behoves us to ensure that taxpayers’ money is used as well as it possibly can be.

Jessica Lee: I agree with my hon. Friend and thank her for her intervention.

The welfare budget has increased considerably over many years. The Department for Work and Pensions already spends more than £90 billion a year on welfare for working-age people—£1 in every £8 that the Government spend. Limiting certain social security benefits to the 1% that is before the House today, and tax credits is a proportionate approach to funding welfare in the longer term.

My constituents in Erewash often say to me that fairness works both ways. One gentleman said to me that he is working around the clock and his wife has two part-time cleaning jobs, and that they are trying their best to keep things going. Like me, he wants to support people in this society who, for whatever reason, will never be able to stand on their own two feet and get work, but that was not his point. His point was about the standard of living of other people in the area on full benefits. He did not think it right that they should have a higher percentage increase than his family’s budget.

The financial mismanagement of the welfare budget by the last Government—increasing and increasing tax credits without the financial means to pay for it in the long term—has created an imbalance between families, and it is not the fault of those families; it is the responsibility of those in government at the time. The books have to be balanced and accountability is required. Between 2003 and 2010, Labour spent £171 billion on tax credits—

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more than 60% of the welfare budget increases. How on earth it expected to make that financially viable I simply do not know. At the same time, the number of the most vulnerable and of children living in poverty increased, heading up to between 2 million and 3 million. The last Government failed to tackle the cause of worklessness, and that is why we are in this difficulty.

I take full responsibility for every vote I cast and everything I say in the House—I am happy to do so —but I can reassure my constituents that I do not think anyone in the House takes these decisions on welfare lightly. In the wider picture, however, of maintaining the safety net of the welfare state, preparing people for work and setting them free from welfare dependency, today’s proposals are proportionate and necessary, and I will support the Government.

4.26 pm

Hywel Williams (Arfon) (PC): Today, we are debating an uprating Bill that will result in a real-terms cut in support for people working and contributing to the economy. That paradox will not be lost on those hard-working families so beloved of spin doctors. I do not see how the Bill will promote the work ethic so beloved of those on both sides of the House, and I do not see how it will enable working people to contribute more effectively in the savings culture.

As a Welsh MP, I have to say that Wales will be hit particularly hard. Incomes in Wales are substantially lower than elsewhere. Gross value added per head in Wales is £15,696, whereas in the UK it is £21,368—a difference of more than £5,500 per person.

Alun Cairns: Given what the hon. Gentleman has said, is he comfortable that welfare payments are rising at twice the rate of earnings?

Hywel Williams: This point has been done to death this afternoon. It says a lot about the quality of the hon. Gentleman’s argument that he repeats it continually. I do not think I will bother with it any further.

Some 6.8% of households in the south-east of England, for example, claim working tax credits. In Wales, that figure is 7.1%. In Gwynedd—my own area—9,200 families are on tax credits of some form out of 53,000 households. That is 17.5% of the population—nearly three times the Welsh rate. The point is that any cuts to in-work benefits for the low-paid will hit Wales and my constituency particularly hard.

Mr Kevan Jones: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the individuals receiving those types of benefit do not save the money, but spend it in their local communities? In areas of high unemployment, such as parts of my and his constituencies, it will have a knock-on effect on the local economy.

Hywel Williams: Clearly, the hon. Gentleman is blessed with clairvoyance, because that is my next point. People on low incomes tend to spend locally and to spend all their money. The Welsh economy is overwhelmingly made up of small businesses. That is a point for the hon. Member for Vale of Glamorgan (Alun Cairns) to consider. Working tax credit reductions will suck demand out of local economies and make matters even more difficult for small businesses struggling to survive in the recession.

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The uprating will also hit those seeking work. The Prime Minister talks of unemployed people abed while others are at work. We can almost see him in Shakespearean mode paraphrasing King Henry: “Gentlemen in England now abed shall think themselves accursed they were not out seeking work”—I can see him doing it anyway, but less extravagantly. Unlike the Prime Minister and his friends, I do not think that the overwhelming majority of unemployed people are abed; they are seeking work. They want to work; they want to improve their lives and those of their children. For those who do not seek work, there is a system of sanctions, and there has been for a long time, as the Secretary of State knows full well.

Poorer areas of Wales have long suffered from high levels of worklessness and low levels of job availability. To end the misery of unemployment, we need not only to help individuals with their skills and, in a small number of cases, their motivation, but to ensure there is real work for people to do. Recently published Work programme figures for Wales show that success there was the lowest in the UK, with only 1,380 of 42,380 people getting a job that lasted six months or more. That is a miserable success rate, at only 3%. In Wales, more than 77,000 people are looking for work and claiming jobseeker’s allowance, while only 20,000-odd vacancies are being posted in jobcentres. Across Wales, there are four people chasing every job, with 11 people chasing every job in Blaenau Gwent and 21 people chasing every job in the Rhondda.

That brings me to Labour’s amendment. I have a question, to which I would like an answer—which might persuade me to back the amendment—in the wind-ups. Long-term unemployed people might still be unable to find a job after 24 months of searching. Large-scale work opportunities are just not available in many Welsh constituencies, so my question is: under Labour’s scheme, would those people face penalties after 24 months? If Labour’s scheme were adopted, would we see benefit cuts 24 months down the road for people who are not refusing to find work, but who just cannot find a job?

We in Plaid Cymru have been as good as our word—to the extent we can be—to the people of Wales, securing thousands of extra apprenticeships as part of the Welsh Government budget deal. We are now pushing for a new procurement policy that would create 50,000 jobs by sourcing public sector contracts locally. However, Wales needs proper job-creating levers to improve our economy, not just handouts and certainly not workfare. For example—this might be a domestic matter as far as most Members in the Chamber are concerned—we want full and early implementation of part 1 of the Silk commission proposals. We also want the transfer of responsibility for Jobcentre Plus to the Welsh Government. There are answers to joblessness and dependence on benefits. At present, we in Wales look in vain to London and the London parties for those answers.

4.32 pm

Mr David Ward (Bradford East) (LD): This is not a difficult one for me. I believe that benefits are far too high—I think most people accept they are at an unsustainable level.

Mr Kevan Jones: Too high?

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Mr Ward: Yes; as a nation, our payments on benefits are, without a doubt, far too high. However, what we face in this Bill seems to be a huge lack of confidence by the coalition in its own policies and programmes to deal with that situation.

None of us is going to support scroungers, skivers or people who are fraudulently claiming disability benefits. None of us is going to say that we should not support people into work, but we on the Government Benches say, “We are doing all of that.” We on this side of the House say that we are dealing with the situation so that we can reduce the colossal welfare bill to the nation. It shows a huge lack of confidence for us then to say that we now need to go to the least well-off in the country and say, “You’ve got to make a contribution to deficit reduction,” because if our measures work—we say they are going to work; we tell people how successful they will be—what are we left with? We are left with those who want a job and cannot get one, even when they have been through the Work programme. We are talking about those who are disabled—and who have been assessed as disabled—who are not able to work. We are talking about those in work but on low incomes. Despite the confidence in our strategy, these are the people to whom we are now saying, “We’re not really sure, because we’re going to have to come to you, for you to make a contribution as well.”

I have identified three arguments for this move. The first relates to incentives, and states that work should always pay, but I thought we were going to ensure that that happened anyway. Is that not what universal credit was supposed to be about? The second argument is that we cannot afford to do otherwise, but I did not see much cutting back on the Olympics. I have heard various suggestions, and yes, there are tough decisions to be made. It has been suggested that we limit the tax relief on pensions. We are seen as being able to afford to give tax reductions to millionaires, and of course we can afford to give rich pensioners winter fuel payments. These are examples of the decisions that need to be made, and there are many more, but we need to look at all of them before we turn to the people on the lowest incomes and those with no income who are surviving on benefits.

Geraint Davies (Swansea West) (Lab/Co-op): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the fiscal cliff deal made last week in America, which took the most money from the top 2%, gave money to those on lower incomes and is projected to increase growth by 1%, is a much better way of squaring the circle than the measures in the autumn statement, which will take money from the bottom 30% to 50% and give it to those further up the ladder, which is reducing overall consumer demand?

Mr Ward: We all know that. We know about the multiplier effect on consumer demand. It is not a secret; it is well researched and we all understand it.

The third reason for the proposals that I have identified relates to fairness. A national debate about fairness is taking place at the moment. I am about to get really technical: there is a difference between somebody who is unemployed and somebody who is employed. The person who is unemployed does not have a job. The person who is employed has a job. They are not the same; we cannot compare them when we are talking about fairness and a 1% increase. I will give the House another really

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technical fact: those people who are on low incomes and receiving tax credits are receiving those tax credits because they are on low incomes. It is very technical, this. How on earth can we compare those on low incomes or on benefits with people who are in a job? We cannot say that it is unfair—or bizarre, according to the Prime Minister—to give someone who is in a job 1%, but then give 2% to those on benefits. We cannot compare the two. There is a difference between somebody who is on benefits and somebody who has a job. The evidence for that is clear.

Of course, people who are in employment do not like the pay freezes or the 1% increase, but is anyone seriously suggesting that they would give up their job to be unemployed? Don’t be ridiculous! Let us not forget that we are eliminating the scroungers and all the rest of it. In my experience, most people in work look at those who are unemployed and say, “Thank God it’s not me!” They do not say that it is unfair that their benefits are being increased; they say, “There but for the grace of God go I.”

I have mentioned the massive lack of confidence in our proposals, but there could be another reason for these measures, although I hope that it is not true. It relates to a sense that the public at large are in favour of these welfare reforms, egged on by opinion polls, and that some people on the Government Benches see that as an opportunity to attack the unemployed. I fear that that is being driven by a deep-rooted conviction that unemployed people are unemployed by choice. This is what worries me. I hope that the explanation is in fact the lack of confidence, but I suspect, deep down, that far too many people on this side of the House believe that unemployed people are the undeserving poor, that they need to sort themselves out, and that we cannot possibly reward them with an increase. Let us remember, too, that this is not an increase. When inflation is taken into account, the measure will simply freeze the level of benefits that we have already decided will provide people with a minimum standard of living. The measure is not fair, and I will not support it.

4.39 pm

Derek Twigg (Halton) (Lab): The Bill is without doubt an attack on the living standards of those who are in work and on low or modest incomes, and of those who are out of work and on disability benefits. The Government have tried to paint those who are unemployed as lazy and as scroungers, but it is a fact that the Bill will definitely make people poorer.

The Government are trying to cover up their failures on the economy, and the Chancellor is now raiding working-age benefits and tax credits by a total of £6.6 billion by uprating them by 1% over the next three years—a real-terms cut. Meanwhile, the Government are giving 8,000 millionaires an average tax cut of £107,000—an average cut of £2,000 for every week of the year. In comparison, people on jobseeker’s allowance will see their benefit go up by 71p and people receiving the couples element of the working tax credit will see a maximum increase of 38p. Of course, the Secretary of State has admitted today for the first time that disabled people will also see cuts as a result of the changes made.

Ann McKechin (Glasgow North) (Lab): I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making some strong points. Does he agree with me that one other group of people in our

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society who will be severely impacted by the change is children? We are going to see an increase in absolute poverty and relative poverty for children, which will take us back to the level we had over 10 years ago. It is wholly unfair that they should be prejudiced in this manner.

Derek Twigg: I agree with my hon. Friend, who makes a valid point, and I repeat that people, families, children will be made poorer by the Bill. The Secretary of State refused properly to answer a question about the disabled issue. He would not say how many disabled people would be affected, so that is a subject to which we will certainly return.

Of course another group of people who will be badly hit are women. Some 4.6 million women who receive child tax credit, including 2.5 million working women and more than 1 million women who are caring for children while their husbands or partners are in work, will be hit by this strivers’ tax. Even the Government’s own impact assessment, which we have just got, acknowledges that that will be the case—and it is a disgrace, if I may say so, that we received that impact assessment at such a short time before this debate. Those hit by the Government’s cuts include primary school teachers, nurses and, as we have heard, many members of our armed forces who today are fighting for this country. My constituents are increasingly suffering because of the rising cost of living. The costs of food, energy and fuel are crippling many families, who are having to decide whether to buy a decent meal or to heat the house.

Andy McDonald (Middlesbrough) (Lab): My hon. Friend mentions primary school teachers and nurses. Does he acknowledge the figures in last Sunday’s edition of The Observer in which chief executives of a number of organisations, including children’s societies, Barnardo’s and the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux, showed that a single parent primary school teacher or a nurse with two children stands to lose £424 a year by 2015 while an Army second lieutenant with three children will lose £552 a year? Those are hardly people whom we should describe as “scroungers”.

Derek Twigg: My hon. Friend makes a strong point: many people in work are being hit, and many of them would not usually be viewed by members of the public as those likely to be hit by such changes. Many families on low incomes in my constituency are having great difficulty finding the money to feed their families properly—even to provide proper meals every day. We know that some children are going to school hungry. The problem is so bad in Halton that two food banks have been set up, and I believe that that is a regular feature in many poorer parts of the country. To add to that, of course, are the appalling changes to housing benefit and the unfair cuts to local government funding, including changes to the treatment of council tax support, which will greatly increase the suffering in my constituency and others where the poorest and the weakest will be the most badly hit.

Frankly, the Government’s approach to welfare reform is cruel and vindictive, with cuts hitting the most vulnerable the hardest. That is said even in the Government’s own impact assessment, which acknowledges that the

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poorest will be hit the hardest. It is a disgrace that this is happening. I have been contacted, like many MPs, by many constituents who have suffered badly under the benefits system, who have lost benefits or who have been denied them or treated badly. In many cases, these people are in despair and at the end of their tether. We have to deal with such cases—day in, day out. It is therefore important to link that with what is happening today.

There are, of course, people who exploit the system, and they should be dealt with severely, but the overwhelming number of people involved are honest and want to work where they can. In my experience, those who can work want to work. I have heard many tales of constituents applying for countless number of jobs, but getting nowhere because jobs are either very hard to find or do not exist. Despite what the Secretary of State said, many want full-time employment. Many are being pushed into part-time employment because there are no full-time jobs for them. The Government have no coherent policy for growth and jobs. That is why people trust Labour more on jobs and growth. We have given greater priority to job creation, which is why I support our jobs guarantee.

David T. C. Davies: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Derek Twigg: I will not, because I have already given way to two Members and others wish to speak.

Let me return to the Government’s decision to cut benefits. We should not forget the announcement in the June 2010 Budget that from April 2011 the measure of price inflation used for the uprating of benefits and tax credits would be the consumer prices index rather than the retail prices index. That will have a significant impact on benefit rates and on future real-terms cuts. So in addition to what is happening today, a major cut is already taking place. The long-term assumption of the Office for Budget Responsibility is that the annual increase in RPI will be 1.4 percentage points more than the increase in the CPI. That means that after 10 years, benefits will be worth 86% as much as they would have been had they continued to be uprated in line with RPI.

The House of Commons Library research paper on the Bill states:

“A decision to limit increases in benefits to below inflation for a sustained period is historically unprecedented. If inflation averages more than 1% over the three years, families claiming the benefits and tax credits affected will experience a permanent real terms reduction in the support they receive.”

It goes on to say that

“independent estimates of “Minimum Income Standards” suggest that current out-of-work benefit rates for people of working age are significantly lower than the amounts necessary for a minimum acceptable standard of living.”

We should never forget that a large number of those who receive benefits are being paid a very small amount of money, an amount that would surprise many people. It is not the case that the majority, or anywhere near the majority, are receiving massive sums. Members should go and talk to a young person who is unemployed, or a single mum, or a couple, and ask about the benefits that they are receiving—and now disabled people are also being hit by the Government’s proposals.

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The Bill clearly constitutes a tax on those who work hard and a cruel, vindictive cut in the living standards of the poorest people in our society. The Government should hang their heads in shame, and that applies especially to the Liberal Democrats.

4.46 pm

Kris Hopkins (Keighley) (Con): About 40 years ago, I used to walk through a really run-down council estate on my way to school. The estate was poor, the people living there were poor, the housing was poor, and life expectancy and opportunities were very low. It is still the same today: 40 years on, the people living on that estate have the same opportunities, or lack of them, that they had in the days when I was walking through it.

Successive Governments have failed to address the problems of people who live in poverty in some of our communities. This is not just about money; it is about a lack of aspiration and ambition, about a failure to understand the need to educate people, and about the need for people to develop skills. It is about a whole range of things, and the solution is not simply money. I say that because now, when I look at estates like the one that I mentioned, I see brand-new schools, and I see that all the houses have been done up, but the people are still poor, still unemployed, and still dependent on benefits. The fact is that, regardless of the 1.5% difference between inflation and the uprating, if you have not got the brass you cannot give it out. The purpose of the coalition must be to manage the deficit that we inherited from the last Government, and we must change the culture of dependency in those areas.

Phil Wilson (Sedgefield) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman talks of dependency. Does he not realise that the Bill will create a food-bank dependency in our nation?

Kris Hopkins: I do not think that it will. I think that the 900,000 or 1 million new jobs created by the Government represent the solution to the problem. We need to face up to the drama in the welfare state. The hon. Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy) says that this is not about a dependency culture, but I can take her to places where people are trapped in a way of life that gives them no incentive to go and look for jobs. That is the tragedy of the situation.

Mr Kevan Jones: I understand what the hon. Gentleman is saying about the dependency culture—he thinks that if he repeats it enough, people will start to believe him—but what would he say to two people whom I met in a local jobcentre last week? They were made unemployed by AEI Cables in Birtley a year ago. They have the work ethic. They are aged 51 and 52, they had worked for the company since they were 16, and they have applied for literally hundreds of jobs without success. Are those people part of the dependency culture?

Kris Hopkins: No, obviously not, because they are going out there to seek a job. That is the key thing. I thank the hon. Gentleman for the extra time.

We have put a benefit cap at £26,000, and that is net. The vast majority of my constituents would be delighted to take home or have access to that amount of money. Far from doing something outrageous by increasing the amount of money that people are going to get by 1% in

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this climate, it is an admirable move by those on the Front Bench to facilitate that, bearing in mind the crisis that the previous Government left.

We have made some choices about who we are going to protect and who we will not. There is a debate about disability, but I am pleased that we are protecting pensioners. It was a commitment by this Government to protect pensioners and we have continued with that. I am very concerned that the unemployed, those who are dependent, those who are uneducated and have no skills, those with limited opportunities to offer young people, are the families that are growing in my constituency. That is a tragedy for the future of towns such as mine. We must break that cycle. It cannot be right that it pays to live on the state.

The resentment and anger are real in people who are working hard. They have seen generations continue to claim benefit. Some of those are trapped, but some have no desire to go and work. People are making life choices based on the fact that they can get money from the Government. As was pointed out earlier, that is taxpayers’ money. That cannot be right. When families see no increase in their income after their hard work and they see people on benefits receiving twice the increase, as has been shown statistically, that promotes resentment in our communities. It is not just about strivers or skivers. Failure to address the issue promotes racism and tension in communities, because somebody sees or perceives that somebody else is getting something that they are not getting. After all their efforts they do not see the benefit of working so hard.

Mr Michael McCann (East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow) (Lab) rose

Kris Hopkins: No, I will not give way.

I have great sympathy for all the people who go out there, graft hard and pay their dues, and then look over next door where the curtains are closed or see estates where people are not ambitious, not aspirational, have failed in education and failed in skills. It is the responsibility of those on the Government Benches to address that, as much as it was with the previous Government. In another 30 or 40 years I do not want to see people living in poverty because they have been abandoned and people keep sustaining those estates. Society backfills sink estates in constituencies such as mine.

We do not take decisions about welfare lightly. We take them extremely seriously, as my hon. Friend the Member for Erewash (Jessica Lee) said, but we on the Government Benches are on the side of hard-working individuals. That is why I support the Bill.

4.53 pm

Debbie Abrahams (Oldham East and Saddleworth) (Lab): I rise to speak on behalf of the many constituents who come to see me every week in my constituency office because they have been affected by the Government’s attacks on our welfare system. I have said this before and I will continue to say it: at every point we must challenge the ideology underpinning these so-called reforms, including the Bill, and the divide-and-rule narrative that the coalition Government have developed.

I know I was not alone in being deeply offended by the Chancellor’s autumn statement, not only because the cuts he put forward will affect the poorest 10% in

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our society, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, but because of the way in which he attempted to justify his actions by deliberately vilifying people who receive benefits as the new undeserving poor. By using pejorative language, such as “shirkers”—he has used the terms “work-shy” and “scroungers” in the past—he sunk to a new low, with a disgraceful misrepresentation of the facts, a few of which I would like to put straight.

Myth No. 1 is that most people on benefits are out of work. In fact, 68%—more than two thirds—of benefit recipients are in work. The majority of welfare beneficiaries are net contributors to the Exchequer. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Leigh (Andy Burnham) has said, there is no evidence of a culture of worklessness in this country—[Interruption.] I will repeat that: independent research has shown that there is no evidence of a culture of worklessness. According to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and the New Policy Institute, 6.1 million people are in poverty but are working. That compares with 5 million people in out-of-work households.

As we have heard, the Children’s Society’s statistics show that the proposed cap on welfare benefits will affect 500,000 key workers—nurses, midwives, nursery school teachers, primary school teachers, administrative workers, secretaries, shop workers, electricians, fitters and members of the armed forces.

Mr Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight) (Con): Can the hon. Lady say what proportion of primary school teachers are covered by those statistics?

Debbie Abrahams: I cannot because I do not have the figures to hand, but I am happy to provide them later. The evidence is there. Scenario modelling has been done—[Interruption.] If I could finish the point. Scenario modelling is available showing exactly how many have been assessed.

Mr Stewart Jackson (Peterborough) (Con): Will the hon. Lady give way?

Debbie Abrahams: I will not give way at the moment. I will finish my point and then make some progress.

The Children’s Society’s analysis shows that between £500 and £400 will be lost per annum by key workers such as a second lieutenant in the armed forces or a primary school teacher.

Angela Smith (Penistone and Stocksbridge) (Lab): In addition to the scenario my hon. Friend is outlining, these cuts come on top of the fact that the move from RPI to CPI for benefits will push a further 4 million children into poverty by 2020.

Debbie Abrahams: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The Institute for Fiscal Studies has shown that nearly half a million more children will be living in poverty by the end of this Parliament, and that is without taking into account the 1% drop. Families up and down the country are struggling. Food prices have increased by 26% over the past three years, almost as much as energy prices. That is a real cut for ordinary families.

The second myth I would like to expose is the claim that welfare benefits have increased more than average earnings. In fact, since 2002 average earnings rose by 36% while jobseeker’s allowance, for example, increased

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by 32%. Between 2007 and 2010, to ensure that work pays, benefits for people in work rose by 53.1%, compared with 46.9% for out-of-work benefits. The Government have also claimed that the 1% cap will offset increases in tax thresholds. We know that at least 682,000 working families receiving child tax credit earn less than £6,420, so they will not benefit from those changes in tax credits.

I was going to refer to the myth that we need to do this to reduce the deficit, but that myth has already been blown out of the water in other contributions, so I will not go on about the fact that growth has been downgraded yet again, we are borrowing more than anticipated and our economy is one of the worst performing in the G7.

The Government’s response to their failing economic policies is what? It is to give tax breaks to the wealthiest in society. Some £3 billion is being given to 300,000 people earning more than £150,000 a year, with an average gain of £10,000, and the Government are making people on low incomes pay for it. According to the Office for Budget Responsibility, £500 million will be saved as a result of the 1% cut in 2013 and just over £2 billion in 2014, but that money could also be saved if the Government made different choices. It is clear where the Government’s priorities really are. The choices that the Government have made are underpinned by their ideology.

Several hon. Members rose—

Debbie Abrahams: No, I am not going to give way any more.

That ideology is to demonise people receiving benefits, creating antipathy and resentment and an “us and them” culture. Through the withdrawal of universal benefit such as child benefit, the Government show an irrelevance of the welfare system to non-welfare-recipients; meanwhile, they are dismantling the welfare state.

I am proud of our model of social welfare, born of the second world war, when we were literally all in it together. I want to retain that model, with its principles of inclusion, support and security for all, protecting any one of us who should fall on hard times and ensuring our dignity and the basics of life to help us get back on our feet.

Fortunately, the British public are seeing through the Government. As British social attitudes surveys have consistently shown, they want not a divided society but a fairer, more equal one. That has been reflected in recent opinion polls on benefits. When the Government’s myths are exposed to people, most do not support them.

I do not want ours to be a country where we impoverish children and rob them of their futures. We need to get the economy moving again and I hope that the Chancellor and Secretary of State will listen to my right hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State’s proposals about how we do that. If they do not, we are in danger of losing a generation, storing up health and social problems for the future—and seeing a divided Britain, not a one nation Britain.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr Speaker: Order. In a bid to accommodate more colleagues, I am afraid that I am reducing the time limit for Back-Bench speeches from five to four minutes each, with immediate effect.

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5 pm

Mr Aidan Burley (Cannock Chase) (Con): In the short time available, I want to nail a couple of myths that have come up in the debate and give the view from Cannock Chase.

The first myth is that we are giving a tax break to the wealthiest in society. The answer that the shadow Secretary of State would not give earlier is that over a 13-year period, the Labour Government had a 50p tax rate for 37 days. The idea that we are giving the rich a tax cut is just a sixth-form debating point; the Labour party had 13 years to introduce the 50p rate, and they introduced it for 37 days.

Let us nail another myth. Although many people in work get benefits, there is evidence of a culture of worklessness, whatever the Joseph Rowntree Foundation says. If hon. Members do not believe me—[Interruption.] Give me a second. Let me read the House a summary of an interview on LBC radio in December. A man called Paul phoned in to say that it was not his fault that there were no jobs out there. He said:

“Why would you work for low wages, can’t really understand that, what’s the point? I was offered a job two weeks ago; they wanted me in there at 8 am in the morning.”

The presenter said:

“And you didn’t want to do that job?”

Paul replied:

“It’s ridiculous, that time!”

The presenter asked:

“What time would you finish if you started at 8?”

Paul answered:

“Well it finished about 4, but that time in the morning is too early. Most people start at 9 don’t they?”

The presenter, getting angry now, said:

“No, people start work at all hours. If I was in charge and you turned down a job for that reason I would cut your benefits. You lied you said no work out there. There are people out there struggling every single day who would love to get that job, frankly you can’t be fagged can you?”

Paul said that he would love to have the job but he was not willing to start at 8, only at 9.30, to which the presenter replied:

“I am outraged by what you just said.”

Let us not pretend that there are not some people who cannot be bothered to work.

Mr Kevan Jones: I am not sure whether that anecdote should lead us to any wider conclusion. The only worklessness in the Chamber today is on the Tory Back Benches—there has been an average of only 12 Tory Back Benchers all afternoon.

Mr Burley: I have been here since the beginning of the debate, waiting patiently to speak.

I move on to my constituency. The House of Commons Library shows that average wages in Cannock Chase rose by 6% between 2007 and 2012. During that same period, benefits went up by 20%. Where is the fairness in benefits going up by 20% when pay has gone up by only 6%? Do not take my word for it. This is what a local police officer e-mailed me last year when we uprated benefits by 5%:

“Why has the Conservative Government given a recent rise in benefits money…to the unemployed when Nurses, Police Officers, Fire and rescue workers and all other public sector workers have not received a pay rise for over two years?”

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It is a fair question, and I do not know the answer. What I do know is that if the rate of inflation is not sufficient to warrant an increase in public sector pay beyond 1% in April this year, it cannot be so high as to require an increase in benefits beyond that either.

This is what another constituent who recently contacted me said:

“I have a friend who has a partner, neither she or he work and have not worked for as long as I can remember. They are both fit and healthy and perfectly able to work they just do not want to. They openly admit there is no point in finding work as they would not have enough money to live on. She stated to me that in order to get close in wages to what they receive in benefits that they would both have to get a job.”

This is the perverse reality of where we are now—that it pays people not to work and they are better off at home on benefits even though they could work and in many cases want to. Tellingly, the constituent went on to say:

“Some time ago she”—

her friend—

“let it slip out that she claimed £500 a week in benefits, I was…astounded and furious and pointed out that it was twice my wages. I am…aware that some people are unable to work and in genuine need…but surely people on benefits who are MORE than capable of working should not be living a life of…luxury and be financially better off than those who…earn a living? These people are playing the system…whilst…genuine hard working people struggle to have a life.”

Those are the real words of a real constituent in an area where the average salary is £22,500, and Labour Members ignore those words at their peril. [Interruption.]

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Nigel Evans): Order.

Mr Burley: The Opposition have argued that this uprating of 1% will impact on working people and not just those on benefits. Given that the previous Government made 90% of workers eligible as welfare recipients, that is inevitable. Unfortunately, Labour Members make the mistake of taking these measures in isolation. If we take the Government’s measures as a whole, including tax allowances, energy tariff changes and cutting petrol duty, low-income working households will be better off. It is time to end the ridiculous money merry-go-round. Let us take people out of tax and off benefits. Labour used to be the party of the working man; it is now the party of the workless and welfare. I look forward to fighting them on the doorsteps as they take that message to the electorate. [Interruption.]

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr Deputy Speaker: Order. Before I call the next speaker, let me say that shouting back and forth really does not help the debate, and I am finding it difficult to listen to what the speaker is saying, so please let us have less of it. I call Steve McCabe.

5.7 pm

Steve McCabe (Birmingham, Selly Oak) (Lab): I apologise for being absent for part of the debate while attending duties at the Home Affairs Committee.

The one inescapable fact is that however much the Chancellor talks about shared pain, we are discussing real cuts to benefits at a time when he thinks it is okay to prioritise tax cuts for millionaires. We should no

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doubt be grateful that pensioners have been spared this cut in their benefits, but that is probably down to Lord Ashcroft having identified what a key group they are and putting their benefits off limits.

I am afraid that these proposals look like an ambition to create division between those who have little and those who have less. That sits comfortably with the values and politics of a particular kind of Conservatism. This is called an uprating, but 1% rises over three years really represent a cut of 4% in the spending power of those already struggling. Citizens Advice estimates that when we take tax changes into account, a family with two children paying £130 per week in rent and earning just above the minimum wage will be almost £13 per week worse off. That is before we take food and energy inflation into account. No wonder people are being driven into the arms of payday loan sharks.

Income transfers for those on modest incomes, for example, are recognised throughout developed economies as exactly the kind of fiscal stimulus needed when recessionary pressures are highest, but the Chancellor is doing the exact opposite. A total of 4.6 million women will lose their tax credits, including 2.5 million working women and more than 1 million who care for their children while their partner works—the same people who are also having their maternity benefits cut. Lord Ashcroft calls them “suspicious strivers”. In his words, they fear they are one more redundancy, one interest rate rise or one tax credit change away from real difficulty, and they would not want to rely on a Conservative Government if they found themselves in trouble.

Mr Stewart Jackson: For the record, 42,654 people in the Peterborough constituency will be better off under the tax changes in April. Is the hon. Gentleman not ashamed that under his Government, who presided over 16 years of economic growth, more than 1,000 people in my constituency were parked on invalidity and incapacity benefit for more than 10 years. That is shameful and it is his Government’s record.

Steve McCabe: I cannot wait for the hon. Gentleman to have to meet all those people who are better off at his advice centre.

The International Monetary Fund regularly warns about the dangers of cutting the automatic stabilisers in these economically fraught times, yet that is exactly what is happening. It is estimated—the IMF is the source —that these benefit cuts will contribute to a £40 billion reduction in the country’s output when we desperately need the opposite to happen.

As well as implementing benefit cuts that defy economic logic, the Chancellor has set up a special hotline for Tory MPs who are confused about his benefit changes. Special hotlines for Tory MPs, Government cars to cushion Ministers from rail-fare rises, and specially arranged meetings to cover the transport costs if they want to watch the European cup final—yes, they are definitely all in it together.

My contention is that these decisions do not make economic sense, are not fair and will punish the very people who are striving and struggling to make ends meet while the Chancellor’s millionaire friends are prioritised for tax cuts. That tells us all we need to know about this Government’s values.

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5.11 pm

Alec Shelbrooke (Elmet and Rothwell) (Con): The problem with this debate is that nobody has gone back to the idea of what the social security welfare state was for. It was brought in to make sure that people who were in desperate need at a time of unexpected circumstances did not fall into poverty. When somebody lost their job, that often meant they were stuck. That is why the social state was created.

I have sat throughout this debate and listened to many a speech, and the only Opposition Member who has spoken with any passion is the hon. Member for Gateshead (Ian Mearns). He gets it—he knows what the welfare state is about. All the other speeches by Opposition Members have, I am afraid, been about pure political point scoring. I do not doubt for one minute that the vast majority of Opposition Members care deeply about the poorest in society, as we do on the Government Benches.

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Alec Shelbrooke: Just give me two ticks. The constant mocking that has gone on is shameful political posturing.

Jim Shannon: The two commodities that have seen the highest inflation are food and fuel, which affect those on a low income more than anyone else. Does the hon. Gentleman think that the Secretary of State’s benefits cap will enable those people to come out of poverty and go for jobs?

Alec Shelbrooke: The hon. Gentleman mentions rising food inflation, but let us not forget that we have just knocked 10p off the price of a litre of fuel. That 10p was in the Opposition’s plans and would have created extra inflation.

This debate has been polarised, but a divide has been in existence for more than a decade and it is coming to the fore. As soon as we try to address it, we are described as nasty and heartless and told we are not dealing with people fairly. The fact is that too many people in this country have the wrong idea about benefits, which is not a dirty word.

Ian Lavery (Wansbeck) (Lab): The divide has not been in existence for just the past decade—Lady Thatcher and Geoffrey Howe hatched a plan to dismantle the welfare state more than 30 years ago. Is this Bill just another phase in bringing the welfare state to a conclusion?

Alec Shelbrooke: In the past 10 years, people have said time and again, “Why should I do this when someone on out-of-work benefits gets double the pay rise I get?” That is a fact. Wherever we may want to lay the blame and whichever way we may want to look at the issue, the fact is that people do not believe in the welfare state in this country any more. That is not just a tragedy; it is deeply worrying for this country.

The measures being taken by the Secretary of State, which we will vote through, will bring back some fairness to society. They are part of a big package of measures. However, we have a problem. We all want to give as much money to people—of course we do—but we cannot afford it.

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Penny Mordaunt (Portsmouth North) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that when there is a limited pot of money, it is better to spend it on high-quality advice and support for people such as older workers who are back in the job market and are struggling to cope than on increasing an already enormous welfare bill? That kind of advice is long overdue and has been long neglected. [Interruption.]

Alec Shelbrooke: I thank my hon. Friend for those comments. I just heard Opposition Members say from a sedentary position—we have heard this several times today—that there has been a tax cut for millionaires. Let me be blunt. All the evidence shows that when the 50% tax rate came in, £7 billion disappeared from the Exchequer. Today’s policy will save £1.4 billion from the welfare state bill. If Labour had not brought in the 50% rate, we would not have had to introduce this policy. Opposition Members cannot pick and choose the arguments; they have to look at things consistently and completely.

This debate has shown that the Government are trying to ensure that we have a fair system of social security that is there when people unexpectedly fall into terrible circumstances. Several Opposition Members have described people who have been made redundant recently and who need to rely on the welfare state. That is what social security is for. That is why people pay their national insurance contributions—so that they do not fall into the starvation and poverty that existed before the welfare state. What is shameful about the Opposition, as has been shown today, is that the Front Benchers are not linked up with the Back Benchers. The Back Benchers believe in caring for people, whereas the Front Benchers are trying to score political points. If the Labour party once again votes against reforming social security, let the message go out to the country that it is not interested in the poorest in society, but is interested only in bribing the electorate to try to get back into power.

5.17 pm

Yvonne Fovargue (Makerfield) (Lab): The proposal is to limit the increase in working-age benefits to 1% for the next three years, which is an effective cut. Let us make no mistake: for anyone who relies on benefits for all or part of their income, this will be a “poverty-producing policy”. Those are not my words, but the words of the Child Poverty Action Group. Working families are finding it hard to get by financially after two years of freezes in child benefit and working tax credit, and cuts to child care tax credit, housing benefit and support for new parents. It is no wonder that the CPAG is warning that the number of children living in absolute poverty will rise.

Let us look at what the proposal means for a full-time worker on the minimum wage. In a response to my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport (Ann Coffey), the Treasury confirmed that the working tax credit lost in 2013-14 by people who are working full time on the minimum wage, due to the Government’s freezes and the increase in the earnings taper, will be £475 for a single person with no children and £660 for a couple with one child. Contrary to the assertions made in Parliament, the amount of working tax credit lost by families with one earner on the minimum wage will be greater than their saving of £420 in 2013-14 from the increase in the personal tax allowance.

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Many of my constituents work in low-paid retail work. I am grateful to the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers for the survey of its members, who all report how difficult it is to manage with the rising cost of food, fuel and other everyday items. Many report that they have turned off the heating at certain times in the month. Tracey said that although both she and her partner work, after paying for the rent, gas and electric, they often find it so hard to manage that they go without food so that their children can eat.

That situation is confirmed by the Oasis food bank in my constituency, which has recently begun to operate. Although I support its good work and pay tribute to it, I deplore the fact that such organisations are needed in the 21st century. The food bank tells me that many working people come to it as they simply cannot make their money stretch to the end of the month, and we know that more people are turning to payday lenders simply to get money to spend on essentials, not on luxuries any more. It is no wonder those payday lenders are circling the estates.

The people affected have not made a lifestyle choice. They are working people such as the one who came to my surgery who gets up at 5 o’clock to do two cleaning jobs. It is not a lifestyle choice for those who are out of work, either. It is a situation that they find themselves in, like the young man who worked at Comet and lost his job, and is now competing with seven others for every job in my constituency. He was almost in tears at having to claim benefits, and I can relate to that: I claimed benefits myself for a few months in the mid-’80s when I was left with a young daughter, and it has left an indelible mark on me. I know what it feels like to go and sign on—it hurts, it really does.

Those in work who are struggling to make ends meet and those out of work who are desperate to find it are the people who are bearing the brunt of the Government’s failed economic policies, not the high earners and millionaires who are getting a tax cut of £107,000 this April. It is not fair, and it is not right, and I am proud to vote against the Bill and defend the 8,100 people in my constituency who are claiming working tax credits.

5.20 pm

Julian Sturdy (York Outer) (Con): It is a great privilege to be called to speak in this sensitive and important debate. Any debate that focuses on our welfare system tends to provoke a great deal of passion, and it can be all too easy for politicians of all parties to fall into lazy arguments based on simplistic generalisations or preconceived ideas.

Our welfare system is a valuable part of our social fabric. Even a believer in a small state, like me, can believe that we should unquestionably support those in our society who fall on desperately hard times, either temporarily or permanently. For those who find themselves truly in need, support must be provided through our welfare system as a safety net for the most vulnerable.

However, the idea that our welfare system was sufficiently reliable or fair upon the formation of the coalition Government in 2010 is simply ludicrous. First, the system that we inherited was simply unaffordable, costing taxpayers more than £87 billion in 2010 alone. Such enormous outgoings must be reviewed and targeted for efficiencies. To suggest that a desire to reduce the cost of

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the welfare system is akin to not supporting vulnerable people is nonsense. In fact, I would argue that a shrinking welfare budget would be a key indicator of a successful welfare system.

That brings me to my second point which is about the wider welfare situation that we inherited in 2010. It was creating a culture of sheer dependency in certain parts of the system and contributing towards the dangerous social divide that my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Kris Hopkins) touched upon.

Mr Ward: I welcome the fact that you welcome a safety net. Do you not agree that unless you increase benefits by the rate of inflation, you are lowering that safety net?

Julian Sturdy: As you rightly said in your speech—

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Nigel Evans): Order. There are too many uses of the word “you” for my liking. It is not about me.

Julian Sturdy: I apologise, Mr Deputy Speaker.

The safety net in the welfare state system is important, but I support the 1% uprating. The point was made earlier that if we are really to focus on the problem, we have to consider inflation as well. If we can keep inflation down through Government measures, as we are at the moment, that is an important part of the system.

An effective and fair welfare system should support those who tragically suffer from difficult medical conditions and those who find themselves in abject poverty. However, benefits that are simply rolled out and increased without question and without any regard for the wider economic situation threaten to give our whole welfare system a bad name. Thus our benefits must always be questioned, our welfare system always honed and the key question of fairness always addressed. The votes in the House later today must be made with fairness in mind—fairness to those who receive benefits and those whose taxes pay for them.

We cannot adequately or logically debate this issue without considering the fiscal implications of increasing benefits and the fairness of those implications. The key fact used by the Secretary of State—that over the past five years some benefits have increased by 20% while workers have experienced an average pay increase of 10% to 12%—is enough to set alarm bells ringing. If we are to ensure that our welfare system is a source of pride and not resentment, we cannot justify such increases when wider taxpayers are suffering in a tough economic climate.

Charlotte Leslie (Bristol North West) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that this debate is essentially about two things—first, whether people on benefits should receive an income that rises faster than those who earn wages, and secondly, for those in work, whether it is better for the Government to take a lot of money and give it back in tax credits, or whether they should take less money in the first place and introduce tax cuts? I, together with most people in the country, believe it is better for the Government to take less money away, and thanks to this Government almost 2,000 people in Bristol North West have been taken out of tax altogether from April, and 40,000 people will get a tax break.

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Julian Sturdy: I entirely agree with my hon. Friend; I will always believe that the Government should take less tax from people in the first place, rather than taking it and giving it back in some other form.

The welfare system—including benefits—is a delicate balancing act and by ignoring valid concerns about the system’s cost and efficiency we risk its future reputation and, by extension, its effectiveness. Capping benefit increases to 1% for the time being is a step of reason that will add to the Government’s wider package of welfare reforms to rebalance our welfare system for the benefit of claimants, while also helping to restore public confidence in the fairness of that system.

We should all remember and appreciate that decisions on such matters have a real impact on real lives. Nevertheless, to improve the fairness, efficiency and effectiveness of our welfare system for those most truly in need, I believe that the measures in the Bill are both necessary and justified. As in many areas of government, our tough decisions will not only reverse deficits and improve efficiencies but will save some of the public provision that the Opposition drove to the brink of bankruptcy when in office. I therefore urge all Members to support the Bill today.

5.27 pm

Mr Iain McKenzie (Inverclyde) (Lab): The Chancellor intends to take a further £6.7 billion from benefits and tax credits over the next four years by capping the increase in them at 1%. That is a real-terms cut and an additional squeeze on families, because of the Chancellor’s failure to create growth in our economy, and the delivery instead of a double-dip recession. The Government told us that they would bring down borrowing, but they are now borrowing an £212 billion more than planned. The Chancellor claims that he is cracking down on a benefits culture, but hard-working lower and middle-income working families are those hit hardest by the Bill. Many working families need tax credits and benefits to top up their incomes, as without them work really would not pay. Just 23% of the savings come from jobseeker’s allowance, employment and support allowance, and income support—the principal out-of-work benefits. The rest comes from tax credits such as maternity pay, sick pay and housing benefit, all of which are claimed by working people.

Some 60% of people affected by the changes to tax credits and benefits are in work, and one-earner working families could lose as much as £534 per year at a time when more than 6 million people in working households are already in poverty. Levels of long-term unemployment are worryingly high, because the Government have failed to kick-start the economy and their Work programme has failed. Even excluding the 60% of working people affected by the changes, this is hardly the time to start picking on the unemployed. The Government are always prepared to talk about skivers when unemployment is high and they are worried about costs, but never want to do so when job vacancies are relatively numerous and unemployment is low. Surely, if the Government wanted to inconvenience so-called skivers, this is not the time to target them, when large numbers of people are without work and reliant on benefits.

Mr Angus Brendan MacNeil (Na h-Eileanan an Iar) (SNP): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the reform will make it more difficult to kick-start the economy?

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It will remove millions if not billions of pounds from communities up and down the UK, making it harder for people to spend and therefore kick-start the economy.

Mr McKenzie: I could not agree more with the hon. Gentleman. The Bill will take many millions out of local economies and have a double kick on the downturn.

Incredibly, the Government take from struggling households and give to millionaires. As I have said, at the same time as the Government are giving tax cuts to millionaires—as we have heard, some cuts are in the region of more than £2,000 per week—the Bill effectively means a permanent reduction in benefits, which could have a devastating effect when a proper safety net is desperately needed by millions of the most vulnerable people in Britain.

It is highly likely that this regressive change will lead to an increase in poverty, especially for those who are already facing a perfect storm of cuts to public services and rising prices. Clearly, the Bill is an attack on hard-working families, who are paying the price for the Government’s economic failure. It is without doubt an attack on striving families. In my Inverclyde constituency, 6,300 families receive working tax credit. They are being asked to pay the price for the Government’s failure, while millionaires—believe it or not—get a tax cut.

In Inverclyde, the number of unemployment claimants means that 15 people chase every vacancy. The Government would suggest they use the Work programme. Where can I start with that? My constituents never hear from the Government where they can start work. The Work programme has delivered less than 1% in my area, which is a disgraceful and pitiful success rate.

The best way to reduce the cost of welfare is to get people back into work. The truth is that the Government’s failure on the economy is pushing the dole bill through the roof. That is why Labour propose real jobs for those who have been out of work for two years or more. Scotland stands to gain most from the introduction of the compulsory jobs guarantee. Long-term unemployment has been rising faster in Scotland than in any other part of the UK.

I shall conclude, because other hon. Members wish to speak in the debate. The welfare bill is going up under this Government—it is a staggering £13.6 billion higher than forecast—because they are failing to get Britain back to work. The Government need to practise fairness, but the Bill fails on fairness and on the economic tests, which is why I will support the amendment.

5.32 pm

Greg Mulholland (Leeds North West) (LD): Sometimes when I listen to debates in the House—on a number of subjects—I wonder whether the great British public are, frankly, astounded at the lack of acceptance of the genuine economic crisis facing this nation. The coalition Government exist only because of the situation we inherited back in 2010. Last year, we found out that the situation was worse and that it would take longer to get better. We had honesty from politicians—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Mr McCann), the Parliamentary Private Secretary, says ludicrously from a sedentary position that we created the current situation, but the great British public know full well that it was the hon. Gentleman’s party and his previous Government who created it. What an absurd statement!

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The simple reality is that the current situation means that there are very difficult decisions to take. The Bill is one of them. It is a serious matter, and there have been sensible, helpful and thoughtful contributions to the debate from Members on both sides of the House, but other speeches, frankly, have just scored party political points—[Interruption.] If the hon. Member for Dudley North (Ian Austin) wants to intervene, he is welcome to do so, but he should not chunter from a sedentary position.

Mr McCann: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Greg Mulholland: Of course.

Hon. Members: He will get more time.

Mr McCann: That is always a danger.

Will the hon. Gentleman confirm that, since the coalition’s election in 2010, the Government have increased borrowing by £212 billion more than they said they would?

Greg Mulholland: The hon. Gentleman is obviously not listening. I have said that it has been made clear that getting rid of that borrowing will take longer and be more challenging. However, let us also be clear that if Labour were in government, we would be like Greece. [Interruption.] Labour Members cannot apologise and they shout people down when things that are true are said. The reality is that difficult discussions had to be made when we found out last autumn that the situation was more difficult and that further cuts would have to be made over a longer period. That would be the reality whoever was in government.

Guy Opperman (Hexham) (Con): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that this is about choices? Certain choices have to be made in what everybody accepts are very difficult circumstances. Nobody likes doing what we have to do today, but it is a job that we have to do if we are to sort this economy out.

Greg Mulholland: It is indeed about choices, and two parties are having to make those choices while the Labour party refuses to make any choices. Labour Members are saying nothing about what they would do or even telling us a single cut that they would reverse.

Ministers from the two parties have sat down and developed a reasonable strategy for reducing the welfare budget. I remind the House that it costs us more than £220 billion a year—more than we spend on health, education and defence combined. Labour Members conveniently forget that they went into the last election with a commitment to reduce that.

At the same time, the Liberal Democrats were clear that there were red lines that we would not cross. We clearly said that we would not accept getting rid of housing benefit for the under-25s; penalising people who have more children; a freeze on benefits; a reduction in benefits; or £10 billion in cuts. What we have now is a much smaller reduction in the budget, but one that is still significant and necessary. The solution is that everybody on benefits, apart, crucially, from those most vulnerable groups, as it is welcome that DLA, attendance allowance,

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disability carer and pension premiums in the ESA support group have been excluded and will continue to get benefits uprated by CPI—

Ian Austin: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Greg Mulholland: No. The hon. Gentleman has been extremely rude in this debate, and I have taken two interventions, so I am certainly not going to let him intervene. If he gets some manners, I might think about it on a future occasion.

It was a tough choice, but Ministers, to their credit, worked together in the interests of the country and came up with something that was as fair and reasonable as possible. I do not want to have to do this. I do not want to see any reduction in benefits unless absolutely necessary, but we need to remember that this is temporary. This is a temporary measure which can and will be reversed as and when the economy improves.

The one thing I would say to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is that we must get the language right. Talk of trying to divide those who work from those who do not has been unhelpful. On worklessness, as a former member of the Work and Pensions Committee in the last Parliament, I can tell the House that there was an appalling benefits trap under that Government, but they did not have the courage to address it. All members of the Committee said that again and again, and this Government are doing something about it. It is not easy and will not be done overnight, but the universal credit will ensure that people have a safety net and that work pays. That is why it is being introduced, and today’s changes also need to be seen in that context.

It was a Liberal who brought in the welfare state, and that is one of our proudest achievements. The principles in the Beveridge report were for a safety net to assist those who cannot work for whatever reason. If those principles were being breached today, I would not support the Bill, but they are not. Indeed, the level of benefits that we have will increase—admittedly not as much as we would like—and I hope that in the future we will review the situation. This is a tough choice, but it is one that I am prepared to make.

5.39 pm

Lisa Nandy (Wigan) (Lab): I do not have time to do justice to the appalling, grinding impact of this miserable piece of legislation on the 3,500 people I represent who are seeking work, including a number of people who until last year used to work for Remploy, when they were casually forced out of work by Ministers. I do not have enough time to do justice either to its impact on the 8,500 working families who will lose out as a result of the Bill, or the 40% of children across Greater Manchester who already go to school hungry. There was not one single reference to them in the autumn statement, and we have heard very little about them from Government Members today.

It is bad enough that, as food banks spring up across the country, the impact of the Bill will be felt by the children I represent. It is worse that the Government believe it is appropriate to label them and their families as shirkers and scroungers—to play the politics of division while at the same time failing to explain how jobseeker’s allowance claimants gaining 72p per week and millionaires gaining more than £2,000 per week could possibly be fair in anyone’s book.

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In the past few days, it has become absolutely clear that the case for the Bill is based on a series of what I can only politely describe as false premises: that it is on the side of people in work, when, as the Resolution Foundation pointed out, two-thirds of the people who will be hit are in work; and that there is a culture of worklessness, which the Joseph Rowntree Foundation roundly disproved in its recent research.

Ian Mearns: One of the things that stuns me about the debate is the fact that 57% of children living in poverty actually have one parent who is in work. It is dreadful that Government Members discount that fact.

Lisa Nandy: I could not agree more with my hon. Friend. That brings me on to the third false premise that the Bill is based on: that there are two distinct groups, the working poor and the non-working poor, who can somehow be separated out and divided when, as we know and as the research proves, most of the people we are talking about are moving in and out of work at an alarming rate. Many of the people I represent work part-time on zero-hours contracts. They are agency workers and they are in insecure employment.

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington North) (Lab): Is my hon. Friend aware that in inner-London constituencies such as mine, the housing benefit cap affects people in work and out of work, and that working families are being forced out of private rented accommodation? They cannot afford the rent anymore, because the cap has been imposed and does not meet their needs. This is an attack on the poorest people in the most vulnerable parts of the country.

Lisa Nandy: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for helping me to illustrate that point.

We have heard the myth, repeated over and over again today, that somehow the welfare bill is too high when, as my right hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (David Miliband) said, there is a big difference between attacking the evil of unemployment and attacking the unemployed. As the Child Poverty Action Group points out, in 1979 unemployment benefit was 22% of average earnings; today, it is just 15%. It has fallen sharply over that period.

We have also heard the myth over and over again that we can bring down the welfare bill by cutting benefits to the poorest. We know that that is not true, as does the Office for Budget Responsibility, which has forecast an extra £6 billion of welfare costs as unemployment tragically continues to rise in my constituency and across the country. There are two solutions that the Government urgently need to take seriously. If the Secretary of State would stop laughing and listen for just one moment, I would like to ask him to get serious about job creation. That is not just about wage subsidies, but looking at how we use our public procurement power to ensure that we get young people into apprenticeships, and people into work and decent training opportunities.

Secondly, I ask the Secretary of State to take seriously the impact of low pay on local economies. A number of hon. Members have raised this point. The more people there are taking cuts to their tax credits and take-home

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pay, the fewer people there are spending in local economies. In an area such as mine, where there is a high proportion of small businesses that employ many people from the local area, that is devastating.

The Bill fails every test. It is not fair. It will not work. It will have appalling consequences for the very poorest in society, whether they are in or out of work. All of us, every single one of us, in this Chamber has a minimum household income of more than £65,000. Many of us, particularly those sitting on the Government Front Bench, have a minimum household income of much, much more. For any of us to vote for the Bill today would be simply shameful, but what is more shameful is that, as part of the debate, some of us have managed to demonise the very people who most need and deserve support from their Government.

5.44 pm

Mr Marcus Jones (Nuneaton) (Con): Thank you for calling me to speak in this important debate, Mr Deputy Speaker. I have been here since the start and have heard a lot of rhetoric, particularly from Opposition Members. For me, this Bill and this debate are about striking a balance between the state providing a safety net for those who need that support and not putting the burden of any changes on to those least able to react to reductions in income, and taking into account the hard-pressed taxpayer.

I fully support the decision to retain the uprating of long-term disability benefits at the rate of inflation, as I support the triple-lock guarantee for the basic state pension. Those benefits are paid to groups that in general would find it impossible to increase their income, and it is right and proper that we fully protect them. That brings me to the people who will be mainly affected by the Bill. They broadly represent two groups in our community: those on out-of-work benefits and those receiving benefits in work.

I shall take the former first. No doubt, it is a terribly difficult decision to limit the increase to 1%, but, that said, unemployment benefits, by definition, should be a short-term safety net. The Government and Parliament should do all they can to get people back into work as quickly as possible. I know from my constituency that things are starting to work in that regard, and I am delighted now to see more bespoke help through Jobcentre Plus and the Work programme, and measures such as the enterprise allowance, the work experience programme, the Youth Contract and the push on apprenticeships are all starting to make a difference. Couple that with the universal credit, and 3.1 million people will benefit from increased support for getting into work. That will make a huge difference.

I turn to those affected who are in work. Again, in an ideal world it would be fantastic to uprate working benefits in line with inflation, but in the world of inevitable reality we all know that that is unsustainable. The creation of the tax credit system unleashed a bureaucratic leviathan on the country, and billions have now been spent on bureaucracy: £4 billion has been written off in errors and bad debts already and, as we heard today, another £4 million is likely to go the same way. It is far simpler to put people in a position where they pay less income tax, and I am glad and proud that the Government are doing that. Personally, I would like to see that extended, so that we can continue to move away from that bureaucracy.

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The deficit, which is the most important issue facing the country, has to be dealt with in a way that is fair to the taxpayer. There is no doubt that difficult decisions have to be made to deal with it, and I am mindful that many people’s wages have been frozen, uprated at below inflation or even cut. We need to acknowledge that the taxpayer cannot bear the burden indefinitely.

Christopher Pincher (Tamworth) (Con): My hon. Friend is right to say that taxpayers cannot continue to bear the burden. Does he agree that the 258% increase in tax credit spend between 2003 and 2010 was unsustainable?

Mr Jones: I thank my hon. Friend for his comment. He is absolutely right that we are in a difficult position that we can no longer sustain.

That brings me on to another point. This afternoon, I have observed a certain mood among the Opposition. Far from being pragmatic, they have been completely ideological. What puzzles me is that before the last general election Labour pledged to cut spending roughly in line with the coalition’s current rate of deficit reduction, but since then they have opposed virtually all the cuts, including £80 billion of savings proposed to welfare. The question for the Opposition, therefore, is: if all those changes are unacceptable, what do you propose to do? Do you want to cut the NHS? Do you want to make more cuts to policing? Do you want to cut local government? Do you want to cut education?

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Nigel Evans): Order. I do not want to do any of those things. Will the hon. Gentleman please use the third person?

Mr Jones: I apologise, Mr Deputy Speaker. I was referring to Opposition Members, whose other options might be to put 13p on a litre of fuel, increase council tax, impose other tax rises or—as has always been the case—give the country more debt.

Nick de Bois: Does my hon. Friend agree that it is time for the Opposition to set out their full deficit reduction plan, as specified by Labour’s previous Chancellor?

Mr Jones: I thank my hon. Friend for his comments because they bring me neatly on to my next point. I suspect that today we will hear nothing from those on the Opposition Front Bench about what they will do. As with the rest of the measures that they have opposed, the Opposition will not reverse the measures put forward today, even if this country should have the misfortune of having another Labour Government. I look forward to, I hope, receiving answers from those on the Opposition Front Bench, but I fear that the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Cathy Jamieson) will be completely silent on that point.

To conclude, I will go through the Lobby this evening mindful of the fact that I am making an extremely important and difficult decision for many of my constituents. In the absence of a credible plan being put forward by any other party in this House—that is particularly true of the alternative being put forward this evening—I will be backing the Bill’s Second Reading and supporting the Government.

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5.50 pm

Mr Michael McCann (East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow) (Lab): Let me start by doing my hon. Friend the Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Gregg McClymont) a favour and correcting the hon. Member for Leeds North West (Greg Mulholland). It was a Labour Government who introduced the welfare state, not a Liberal Government—I am damn sure there was not a Liberal Government after the war.

I heard the Secretary of State defending the Bill on Radio 5 Live this morning. He made two important comments. The first was that the Government had underestimated the size and scale of the economic problems the country faces; the second was that the proposal to cap benefits was based on fairness. The two issues are, of course, inextricably linked, but what he failed to mention was his Government’s contribution to the size and scale of the economic problems we face. Without that part of the story it is difficult—indeed impossible—to put into context the proposal before us, nor is it possible to understand the rationale that the Government are setting out.

The economy is not in good shape, but if the Prime Minister was too weak to move the Secretary of State from office in the last Cabinet reshuffle, he is certainly not going to move his Bullingdon club buddy. That is a pity, because it is the Chancellor’s quick-fix agenda of raising taxes and cutting spending too far and too fast that has spectacularly backfired on our economy. Because the benefits bill is going up while tax revenues are down, borrowing continues to rise. [Interruption.] The Secretary of State should listen to this; he might learn something.

We hear a lot about the great work that the Government have done to reduce the structural deficit, but very rarely do we hear anything about the debt. A perfunctory look at the numbers tells us why. The Government claim they have clipped the structural deficit by £37.5 billion, but they have also increased borrowing by £212 billion since they were elected. It seems neither appropriate, reasonable nor sane to claim that we have reduced the household budget— to use the litmus test of Mrs Thatcher, the great saviour of the Conservative party—while simultaneously borrowing more than five times as much as we claim to have saved. Like so many other claims that the coalition parties make, it is spurious. Their economic competence is indeed questionable.

All this is important because if we had steered a different and more sensible course, the economic condition of our country would be immeasurably better. That takes us back to the Bill. Who is being asked to pay as a result of the Government’s mishandling of the economy? We all agree that it would be foolish to disagree or take sides on arithmetic, but it appears that the Government wish to do so. May I remind hon. Members that jobseeker’s allowance is £71 a week? Under the proposal in this Bill, it will increase by 71p this year. It might interest the House to know that since this Government took office, the cost of the average weekly shopping basket has risen by 17%. Most importantly for the poorest people in our country, figures from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs show that falling income and rising food prices reduce food affordability by 20%. For the record—I draw this to the Secretary of State’s attention—the proliferation of food banks across the UK is not a cause for celebration.

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Increases in prices have the ability, or at least the potential, to be absorbed by a working household’s budget. Although Labour Members do not deny that times are tough for everybody under the current economic circumstances, to suggest that there is a level playing field between someone earning even the minimum wage and someone receiving £71 a week in benefits is an utter fallacy. This is not about fairness; otherwise, 8,000 millionaires would not be getting a tax cut of £107,000 a year. The Secretary of State’s halo has fallen and crashed to the floor, and the Bill is sadly another example of the true character of Conservative politics. In difficult times, they see nothing wrong in helping the rich at the expense of the country’s poorest people.

5.54 pm

Mr Stewart Jackson (Peterborough) (Con): I do not criticise Labour Members for their aspirations. There is nothing ignoble in the positions that they are taking; I just happen to believe that they are wrong. They know that the picture of despair and hopelessness that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State saw in Easterhouse in 2002 was the same picture that the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr Field) saw in 1997, when there was an historic opportunity for the then Labour Government to tackle welfare dependency and rebalance work and welfare. Unfortunately, they did not take that action.

People out there are decent; they care and their attitude is, “There but for the grace of God go I.” They do not want to stigmatise people, and nor do Government Members. I accept that there has been some rhetoric on both sides of the House, but people do care. They also care about the dependency culture, and about fairness. In all honesty, they feel that the previous Labour Government tested their patience on this issue.

It is disingenuous to talk about cruelty. I think that it was cruel to park 1,000 of my constituents on invalidity or incapacity benefit for more than 10 years without the opportunity—[Interruption.] I should remind Labour Members that this was in 2010. Those people were given no opportunity to inform anyone of their needs. People suffering from depression or other mental health problems, and people with physical afflictions, were simply parked and forgotten. I am not saying that the Labour Government did that because they were cruel or heartless; they did it because they were incompetent. We are taking the tough decisions that will make work pay, through the Work programme and through apprenticeships that will tackle youth unemployment, which the previous Government doubled. Work is the No. 1 determinant in taking people out of poverty and breaking the cycle of children seeing their parents unemployed, living in a half-life of hopelessness and poverty and lacking ambition. That has been demonstrated across the world.

Christopher Pincher: My hon. Friend is quite right to say that work provides the best way out of poverty. Does he agree that the 5.2 million people who were trapped in dependency when the economy was growing in the boom years under Labour are evidence of the previous Government’s structural failure to deal with poverty?

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Mr Jackson: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. In retrospect, I think that it was a tragedy to import thousands of low-wage, low-skilled people from eastern Europe while we parked our own indigenous young people who needed skills and training and who needed educators and businesses to put their the faith and trust in them. I have nothing against the people who wanted to come to this country to make a better life for themselves and their families, but at what cost did they do so? Even the Scottish Trades Union Congress says the same thing.

Some of the arguments being used are disingenuous because they do not fully understand the context. We have uprated benefits by 5.2%, we have brought in apprenticeships, and we are trying to deal with these issues through the Work programme. I am on the Public Accounts Committee and I know that the programme is not perfect. We are at the beginning of a process and there are some difficulties with appeals, with people’s understanding of the system, and with advocacy. I understand that. However, my blue-collar constituents do not understand how it can be right, when their average salary is about £24,000, for a party that aspires to government to say that it will not countenance a benefit cap of £26,000. My constituency has some of the poorest super-output areas and wards in the eastern region, and my constituents are decent, salt-of-the-earth people who want to work. They are not shirkers.

Mr MacNeil rose—

Mr Jackson: I will not give way to the hon. Gentleman, even though he is a terribly charming fellow.

Those people in my constituency want to work, but they want the Government to give them a positive message about the future. It is cruel to park people and to forget them.

James Wharton (Stockton South) (Con): I want to back up what my hon. Friend is saying. When I went around my constituency at the last election, the issue of making work pay came up time and again, and the communities in which it came up were the poorest ones. They had seen the damage that long-term welfare dependency could do to a community. The reason that my hon. Friend and I welcome the reforms is that the Government are finally tackling this long-term problem, which hits the poorest in our country the hardest.

Mr Jackson: That was eloquently put by my hon. Friend, who is even younger and better looking than the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr MacNeil). We take a pinch of salt for a party that has no coherent fiscal alternative. Frankly, “Tough on Coco Pops and tough on the causes of Coco Pops” does not make a fiscal policy. The 10p tax rate was a debacle, while re-spending over and over again bankers’ bonuses and pensions credit does not cut the mustard.

Let me give some free advice to Labour Members. We did the same as them in 1998 and 1999 when we said that the downturn was made in Downing street, but it did not help us because we were not seen as credible. I respectfully invite Labour Members, if they are going to vote against Second Reading, to say what they would cut and what they would spend as an alternative. The Bill will save the best part of £2 billion. Politics is about choices, as Aneurin Bevan said 50-odd years ago, and

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he was right. It is disingenuous to keep repeating the issue of tax cuts to millionaires, when we have taken millions of people out of tax and cut the taxes of many low-paid working people. This Bill is about giving a message—that work pays and that it is better than welfare. We should give people the life they need and deserve—a life of work and a better future.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Nigel Evans): Order. Will everyone resume their seats? We can see that no Government Members wish to contribute, so if everyone shows the time discipline of remaining within three minutes, all those who wish to speak will be able to contribute to the debate. Let us have some team play.

6.1 pm

Mr Kevin Barron (Rother Valley) (Lab): First, I am sorry to see that the hon. Member for Brent Central (Sarah Teather) is no longer in her place, as she made a very good speech. She mentioned one word that applies to much of the debate when she spoke about the use of “language”, while another important word, spoken about by the hon. Member for Nuneaton (Mr Jones), who is now leaving, is “ideology”. Language and ideology have surrounded this debate for many years.

In the last 12 months, we have noticed the language used by the coalition to get us to where we are today. Twelve months ago last January, the Deputy Prime Minister was talking about “alarm clock Britain”, and then we had talk about people “behind the curtains”. On 8 October last year on the “Today” programme, the Chancellor of the Exchequer said it was

“unfair that people listening to this programme going out to work see the neighbour next door with the blinds down because they are on benefits”.

My blinds used to be down because I was on night shift, and for many people the blinds and curtains are closed in the morning because they are working hard throughout the night, seven of 24 hours every day to keep industry running. Many people will resent what has been said.

This is not the first time that such language has been used. Andrew Rawnsley, a political columnist for whom I have a lot of time, got it right in an article in The Observer this Sunday, when he said that in view of the true intent of the author of the Bill—I assume he meant the Chancellor of the Exchequer—it should be called

“the Welfare (Make Labour Look Like the Party for Skiving Fat Slobs) bill”.

It is a pity that the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Mr Burley) is not in his place as that description fits well with his anonymous quotes about people being at home because that is what they want to do and because they do not want to go out to work. That is not my experience in life, and I have been a Member of this House a long time. I started work as one of six children in a coalmining community. I lived in that community for most of my life, and I can say that the people I know and have represented for years are not like the caricatures that have been portrayed in this debate for far too long.

Andrew Rawnsley went on in his article to say the real truth:

“The majority of those who are going to lose—about 60%—are people in work, among them 3.7 million people on child tax credit and 2.5 million on working tax credit…those hit will include primary school teachers, nurses and army officers”.

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As he went on to say, they are

“not exactly the ‘shirkers’ and ‘scroungers’ of some Tory rhetoric about benefits.”

The Government are trying to play politics with the welfare state, but their claims are clearly unravelling. It is no wonder that the Government have run out of speakers—and come the next general election, some Government Members will deeply regret the speeches that they have made today.

The Citizens Advice Bureau works with these people week in, week out, giving them advice, and it works with us as well, certainly in my part of the world. According to the brief that it sent to us:

“A couple with two children earning £26,000 a year and paying a fairly modest rent of £130 a week… will experience a net loss of £1.85 a week from next April, £6.52 the following April and £11.20 in April 2015. A possible rise in the personal tax allowance to £10,000 in perhaps April 2014 would only give them £0.75 a week to offset the loss of £6.52.”

Mr MacNeil: Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr Barron: No, I will not. Other Members wish to speak.

As was pointed out by my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen South (Dame Anne Begg), this is the first time that we have sat here and not had one debate about one annual uprating of benefits. That is because this uprating is so unpopular. It has been driven by a nasty party, and by a nasty piece of legislation which I will oppose.

6.5 pm

Dr Eilidh Whiteford (Banff and Buchan) (SNP): I am sorry that we are so pressed for time, because these are issues of real public interest, and I think that they deserve more scrutiny than we are able to give them this evening.

I believe that the 1% cap on the uprating of working-age benefits is an inherently regressive measure. It will make people on low incomes even poorer, will increase deprivation, and will widen the gap between the haves and the have-nots in our communities. It will particularly hit parents in low-paid or part-time work who are already struggling to make ends meet because of the wider economic climate.

I shall oppose the Bill’s Second Reading. Labour’s amendment proposes that the House should decline it a Second Reading, and posits a guaranteed job offer for those who have been out of work for a long time. On the basis that that is a laudable aim, I am prepared to support it, albeit with a caveat. I have listened carefully to the debate, but I have heard no details of how such a proposal could be put into effect in any realistic way. I would not want to endorse any particular scheme until I had seen whether it was workable and fundable in practice.

The Bill will hit those who are working, especially those who are supporting and bringing up children, especially hard. Many people in lower-paid private sector jobs have seen their hours cut recently, and many who are working part-time want to work full-time but cannot find full-time jobs or pick up extra hours. Meanwhile, they are struggling to juggle work with child care.

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As others have said, notably the hon. Member for Brent Central (Sarah Teather), we all need to take responsibility for the way in which we portray people who are unemployed. We need to recognise that those who are jobless should not necessarily be blamed for their joblessness, and that the rises and falls in unemployment are caused by wider economic factors more than by individuals’ aspirations. We also need to recognise that the greater part of the savings made here will be taken from people who are working, often in very physically demanding and fairly unrewarding jobs.

Like the right hon. Member for Rother Valley (Mr Barron), I was struck by the comments of the Citizens Advice Bureau on the impact assessment. We had seen no impact assessment until this afternoon, and we have still seen no equality impact assessment. According to the CAB’s calculations, a family consisting of two full-time workers earning the minimum wage with two children, living in private rented accommodation, will be losing £12 a week by 2015. Disabled lone parents will suffer, as will families with a single earner. What those examples mask, however, is the disproportionate impact of the rising cost of living on households with very low incomes. The worst of the cold winter weather is probably still ahead of us, but the rises in domestic fuel bills will cause a very nasty hangover in the spring.

Christopher Pincher: Will the hon. Lady give way?

Dr Whiteford: I will give way briefly.

Christopher Pincher: The hon. Lady talks of the impact on low-income families. Is she aware that, as a result of the Chancellor’s autumn statement last year, some 1,400 people in her constituency are being taken out of tax, and 30,000-odd are better off in tax?

Dr Whiteford: I am delighted to be able to respond to that point. What has been shown by the monitoring of the Citizens Advice Bureau and the Institute for Fiscal Studies, and by the Government’s own impact assessment—which we received very belatedly—is that the combination of the tax and benefit changes will hit the lowest deciles of the income spectrum much harder than the middle and upper deciles. The lowest five deciles are hit hardest, and within that the lowest three are hit worst of all. Many of those are hard-working people and they deserve more. We have heard much criticism of the tax credit system this afternoon, but the Government have failed to address the reason why we need a tax system when people who are working full-time in demanding jobs cannot afford to bring up their children without depending on extra support from the state. That is the underlying issue, and until we have heard how the Government plan to address poverty for working people, we should not even be talking about a below-inflation rise in benefits.

The other issue that should be taken into account, which has been raised by other Members, is that food prices are rising. That is to do with the bad harvest that we have had here due to the very wet summer but, more importantly at a global level, bad harvests in the US and Russia have put the prices of basic commodities way up. In the past year potatoes, probably the great staple of our own food economy, have gone up in price

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by more than 40%. That is having a disproportionate impact on very poor people, compared to people like us. A 1% increase in an MP’s salary would give us an extra £600 a year. The increase of 71p or 72p for a jobseeker does not compare. There is a quantitative, material difference.

The cap means that there would be a 4% cumulative cut in support to low and middle income families, which will increase material deprivation. The Government have got their priorities all wrong. Asking low and middle income families to bear the brunt of cuts while insulating the very richest is the wrong choice to make, and I look forward to the day when in Scotland we can make these decisions for ourselves.

6.11 pm

Albert Owen (Ynys Môn) (Lab): The Chancellor’s statement last autumn was an admission that the Government were failing in their economic policy. They had failed on their two fiscal targets and they now say that they will need two Parliaments to meet those targets. The Chancellor needs to divert attention from his economic policy and is doing so by the crudest of politics. The Bill is a wedge between one party and another for electoral advantage. It hits the low paid, the unemployed, of whom there are 2.5 million, and the under-employed—many, many people on low wages, decent, hard-working people, including nurses, primary school teachers and armed forces personnel—and to play politics with them through the Bill is wrong.

Part-time workers need help and support, yes, and I would support a reform that helps them, but to penalise them at this time is completely and utterly wrong. The Chancellor is not known for his consistency. In his autumn statement in 2011 he said: