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Amendment of the Law

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 9:35 pm on 24th March 2014.

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Photo of Catherine McKinnell Catherine McKinnell Shadow Minister (Treasury) 9:35 pm, 24th March 2014

Our passionate and wide-ranging debate was excellently opened for the Opposition by my right hon. Friend Hilary Benn, who I commend on the deeply moving and insightful tribute that he paid to his father in the House last week. Tony Benn had close links with the north-east, not least through his regular appearances at the Durham miners gala. His loss is felt keenly by many people of all ages throughout the region and, of course, by hon. Members on both sides of the House.

The many excellent speeches that we have heard today have served to illustrate once again which side of the House is in touch with the reality of the lives of people up and down the country. Labour Members know that, despite the Chancellor’s continued complacency, for most people in Britain, living standards are not rising but falling year on year. Indeed, the Institute for Fiscal Studies makes it clear that working people will be worse off in 2015 than they were in 2010—and little wonder with average real-terms earnings more than £600 a year lower than in May 2010, and with households having faced 24 Tory tax rises since then, including the increase in VAT. Labour Members believe that the Chancellor should have used his Budget to take urgent action to support families through the cost of living crisis now, not after the general election.

I pay tribute to the contributions made by Labour Members: my right hon. Friends the Members for Southampton, Itchen (Mr Denham), for Neath (Mr Hain), for Wolverhampton South East (Mr McFadden) and for Holborn and St Pancras (Frank Dobson); and my hon. Friends the Members for Stoke-on-Trent South (Robert Flello), for Blyth Valley (Mr Campbell), for Glasgow North (Ann McKechin), for Sedgefield (Phil Wilson), for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith), for Southampton, Test (Dr Whitehead), for City of Durham (Roberta Blackman-Woods), for Barrow and Furness (John Woodcock), for Hartlepool (Mr Wright), for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield), for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson), for Brent North (Barry Gardiner), for Wythenshawe and Sale East (Mike Kane), for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood) and for Edinburgh North and Leith (Mark Lazarowicz). They all spoke about concerns on behalf of their constituents—yes, those people who live in the real world out there—and businesses throughout the country.

Despite the pressing nature of the cost of living crisis that my right hon. and hon. Friends carefully articulated in the debate, what mention was there of that critical issue in last week’s statement by the Chancellor or any of the Budget documents? Absolutely none. What urgent measures were announced for parents facing child care costs that have increased by 30% on this Government’s watch while the value of their wages has fallen? Absolutely none at all. What extra support will be available now to parents struggling with those costs and to pensioners struggling with the cost of heating their homes? Not a penny. What help will the Budget provide for the millions of small firms whose business rates will increase by an average of £430 next month? Zero. What about the tens of thousands of young people who have been out of work for 12 months or more? The number has doubled under this Government, but they did not even receive a mention.

Just as we thought that the Chancellor might have completely lost touch with the lives of people up and down the country, however, we learned this weekend that he actually is on the side of the working man and woman. It is now clear that he knows what the ordinary working people of this country—very occasionally, he even gets to speak to them—want out of life: a game of bingo; and, if they buy 300 pints, to get one free.

We were all under the impression that it was the Chancellor’s right hon. Friend, Grant Shapps, the chair of the Conservative party, who was the one with the common touch, but we were wrong. Who needs lower energy bills, lower child care costs or lower business rates, higher wages or even a job when people can spend their time being patronised by the Chancellor and his hapless colleagues instead? Who cares that women are being hit four times harder than men as a result of the Chancellor’s tax and benefit changes since 2010, when the move on bingo taxation, welcome as it is, has been spun in this Budget as a woman-friendly measure?

I am sure that Britain’s women will be thrilled to know that the Chancellor failed to take up the Opposition’s proposal of scrapping the discredited marriage tax allowance—84% of the benefit of which will go to men—in order to introduce the 10p rate of tax that would benefit 24 million low and middle-income households up and down the country. I am sure that they will be delighted that the Chancellor continues to defend his £3 billion tax cut for the top 1% of earners in this country—85% of whom just happen to be men—rather than adopting our proposal to reverse it in order to ensure that those with the broadest shoulders bear the greatest burden of deficit reduction.

So what did the Budget have to offer? Let us take a moment to remember the Chancellor’s record. His 2012 Budget was going to raise billions of pounds through tackling tax avoidance, yet his flagship Swiss tax deal had more holes than Swiss cheese and has brought in just a fraction of the amount that was originally promised. His 2011 Budget was a Budget for growth, yet he has had to revise his growth figures down. Of course, there was his 2010 Budget—the one in which he first made the decision to slash Labour’s annual investment allowance from £100,000 to just £25,000 from April 2012, on the grounds that 95% of firms would not be affected. He continued down that path, despite being warned widely of the hugely detrimental effect that it would have on businesses and job creation. We then had two autumn statements and two Budgets before, lo and behold, the Chancellor announced in the 2012 autumn statement that he was going to increase the allowance temporarily—the one he had cut to £25,000—to £250,000 from January 2013. On making that announcement, he described it as

“a huge boost to all those who run a business and who aspire to grow, expand and create jobs.”—[Hansard, 5 December 2012; Vol. 554, c. 881.]

That would imply to anyone that his decision to slash it just two and half years earlier was entirely the opposite.