As we debate the Budget it is deeply disappointing, but not a bit surprising, that Labours Members are once again forced to highlight the impact that the Government’s approach is having in our communities. The Budget was more of the same. The Chancellor has confirmed that he will not alter his course, in spite of the pain it is causing to ordinary families. The Government’s cuts are too deep and too fast, and they are hurting. In my West Dunbartonshire constituency the jobless total is at its highest for well over a decade, and the predictions are that many more people will lose their jobs.
Pensioners are feeling the pain of the VAT rise and now, thanks to the Budget, will be hit with another attack on their income, because the Government are doing what they promised they would not do and slashing the winter fuel payment. Shame on them. And let us not forget that pensioners will lose thousands of pounds through the Government’s plan to link public sector pension rises permanently to the consumer prices index rather than the retail prices index. The Government say that that is necessary to reduce the deficit, but pensioners now, and those who will collect their pensions in years to come, will continue to see the value of their pensions slashed long after the deficit has been paid off. That leads us to conclude that the changes are an ideological measure intended to make pensions much less generous.
The Government say that it is okay to cut public sector jobs because the private sector will fill the gap. Perhaps that will be achievable in some areas—I really hope it will—but in my constituency there are 35 unemployed people for every job vacancy. The Government’s approach, therefore, is breathtakingly complacent and reckless as far as my constituency is concerned. The fact that in many parts of the country there are such high numbers of people out of work compared with the number of vacancies goes to show just how out of touch the Government are, if they think that the private sector will come to the rescue.
Furthermore, the Government’s plans to equalise the state pension age earlier than previously planned and at a greatly accelerated rate means that hundreds of thousands of women in their mid-50s will lose thousands of pounds. This change is fundamentally unfair on women who have planned carefully for their retirement. It cannot be fair that with just seven years to prepare and plan, they find that they must work an extra two years before being able to draw a state pension. In contrast, men of a similar age have been given eight years’ notice of a one year change. On Friday in Dumbarton I met a woman who said that she could not continue to meet the physical demands of her job for that extra time. What is the Government’s response to such women? They are not arguing that the state pension age should not be equalised, and neither am I, but the Government are going about all this the wrong way.
The cuts will impact hard on vulnerable people. I support the basic principles of welfare reform—trying to simplify the benefits system and doing all we can to help people into work where they are able to work—but the Government are going too far. Imposing an arbitrary 20% cut to the bill for disability living allowance proves that the Government’s approach is ill considered, and by publishing the Welfare Reform Bill before they have finished consulting, they cannot even pretend that they have taken into account the impact on the vulnerable people who will be affected by these changes. Scrapping the mobility component of DLA for people in residential care shows pure indifference to the needs of millions of people with disabilities who need vital support. It is an outrageously unfair cut that will leave many disabled people trapped in their homes. We had an intervention earlier from the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Maria Miller, but we still have not cleared up the confusion on this issue. Earlier the Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions, Steve Webb, who is not in his place at the moment, said from a sedentary position, “Stop frightening disabled people.” Let me be very clear with the Government Front-Bench team: it is their reforms that are frightening disabled people.
I have been contacted today by a number of individuals and charities that fear that the new work capability assessment will discriminate against many seriously sick and disabled benefits claimants, including, for example, blind people with guide dogs. The Government need to think again before rushing through any changes in that area.
The Government’s cuts are fundamentally unfair and completely contradict the claims that we are “all in this together”. They are driving up unemployment, cutting lifeline support for ordinary families and pensioners, and targeting women and vulnerable people. In response to a point made by George Freeman, let me say that public sector workers pay taxes too. It is ridiculous to suggest that they do not contribute to the economy of this country. Ordinary people are being forced to pay the price of the excesses of the bankers, while the banks themselves have been given a massive tax cut by the Government this year. The huge march in London at the weekend showed that the mainstream majority across the country want the Government to change course. Sadly, the Budget was just more of the same.