Opposition Day — [Un-Allotted Day]
Cathy Jamieson (Kilmarnock and Loudoun, Labour)
Let me begin by thanking everyone who has taken part in the debate. It is clear from the level of interest that has been shown, the number of Members who have spoken, and the number who were not able to do so that we were right to raise these issues in the House today.
We heard passionate speeches on behalf of constituents from my hon. Friend Ian Lavery, Sammy Wilson and my hon. Friend Meg Hillier. We also heard thoughtful contributions from my hon. Friends the Members for Edinburgh East (Sheila Gilmore), for Chesterfield (Toby Perkins), for Inverclyde (Mr McKenzie) and for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams)—and, indeed, from Mr Redwood, although I began to be worried about
the number of occasions on which he seemed to be agreeing with the Labour party. Unfortunately, we also heard some of the same old rhetoric from, predominantly, Tory Members. It is time that the Government took responsibility for what is happening on their watch.
We heard from Members what their constituents tell them. We heard, for instance, that it is not simply a case of being able to secure an extra few hours for those who are on 16-hour contracts. We did not hear from Ministers where those extra hours were to come from, although they were pressed on the issue. We heard the views of charities such as the Child Poverty Action Group and organisations such as the Institute for Fiscal Studies, and those of trade unions, particularly the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers. We heard about the difficulties experienced by people who are already on low incomes and are trying to make ends meet, while fearing what will happen when their working tax credit is cut.
It is sad that we heard that same tired, out-of-touch rhetoric from many Government Members. It just shows that they do not understand what it is like for families who are trying to make ends meet while facing problems such as ever-rising prices. Some Government Members are shaking their heads. Let me deal with a few of the points made by the Exchequer Secretary in his opening speech. He seemed to suggest that it was reasonable for couples to work 24 hours rather than single parents working 16 hours, but, as I said earlier, he did not give us any indication of where those extra hours were to come from. In response to an intervention, it was suggested that people could simply change jobs and that there are always jobs out there. We Opposition Members are concerned about unemployment, and we would like to know where those jobs are now, and where they are going to come from—and I suggest that Government Members should try explaining that to the millions of people who are already out of work.
It was also suggested that the raising of the personal allowance was going to make a big difference. I gently say to those who made that point that people who are working 24 hours or fewer on the minimum wage will not benefit from that, and that this measure does not serve as an argument for cutting the working tax credits of people on low incomes.
The Exchequer Secretary and others used the word “fairness”; indeed, he suggested that it was at the heart of everything he did—and he said that with a straight face, which I found astonishing given what the Government are doing. Far from everyone being in this together, people cannot understand why David Cameron and George Osborne have chosen to give the banks a tax cut at the same time as their Budget measures are hitting women harder than men and are pushing up child poverty.
We heard during the course of the debate that families with children are set to lose an average of £580 a year from policies coming into effect this April alone. Some Government Members may think that £580 is not much money, as for them it may merely mean cutting back on a few luxuries, but for ordinary families in ordinary houses in ordinary streets in the cities, towns and villages Opposition Members represent, £580 may well make the difference between those families being able or not being able to pay their electricity or gas bill, or buy shoes for their children, or ensure that they can go on
the school trip. That sum may be what enables them to provide a decent standard of living—not luxuries, but the necessities of family life.
Next month’s Budget must pass two tests: on jobs and growth, it must boost our economy and put in place the long-term reforms that we need; and on fairness, it must ensure that families on low and middle incomes do not bear the heaviest burden. The Government have not explained how it can be fair that working families on the lowest incomes who are trying to do the right thing are going to lose out.
I repeat our call for a plan for jobs and growth in the Budget, and I look the Economic Secretary in the eye and ask her whether she will press the Chancellor to think again on the changes to tax credits and child benefit, which will cost families with children up to £4,000 per year. Will she urge him to abandon the changes in eligibility for working tax credits that are set to hammer hundreds of thousands of parents in part-time work by up to £74 per week and put them in a situation where work will not pay? Will she say to both her constituents and mine that the Government will pull back from the plan under which, from April, couples who have children and who are earning less than about £17,700 will need to increase the number of hours they work from a minimum of 16 hours to 24 hours per week, or they will lose all their working tax credits? Will she say how she will create the fairness that her colleague, the Exchequer Secretary, talked about? If she believes people should be better off in work, how can she support a change that will penalise about 275 families in her constituency who are working and trying to do the right thing, but who cannot increase their working hours at a time when the economy is flatlining and unemployment is rising? Does she agree that this unfair and damaging change could, and should, be cancelled? We want a straight answer to that question from her.
I also press the Economic Secretary again on whether she has asked David Cameron and George Osborne to review urgently—