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Amendment of the Law

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 7:44 pm on 24th March 2014.

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Photo of Roberta Blackman-Woods Roberta Blackman-Woods Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government) 7:44 pm, 24th March 2014

I hope that Gareth Johnson gets a genuine garden city. The 15,000 houses are welcome, although the number has reduced since the original plans, but they need to be underpinned by garden city principles if Ebbsfleet is going to be a garden city.

There are some things to be welcomed in the Budget, such as the increase in the personal tax allowance, the rise in the tax-free ISA allowance and the Government’s decision to expand the tax on residential properties worth more than £2 million to those worth more than £500,000. Overall, however, the Budget delivers very little for people in my constituency.

The key question for people across Durham and the north-east is whether they are better off than they were when the coalition came to power back in 2010. For the overwhelming majority of my constituents, the answer would be a resounding no. Julia Unwin, chief executive of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, said:

“This is a Budget for the people who already have, not for the people who need to benefit most from the return to growth. It is a lost opportunity for the 13 million people…who need active intervention to tackle the structural barriers that keep them in poverty.

People on low incomes are unlikely to see the welcome benefits of growth unless there is targeted help with household and housing costs, with child care and with the nature of jobs and training. The expense and inefficiency of high levels of poverty continue to put a drag on growth.”

I agree with her and would emphasise that neither the Chancellor nor any Government Member today has shown any recognition of the need to rebalance growth in our economy. Significantly, there is a real need to reduce regional inequalities.

Many people in my constituency simply earn too little to benefit from the Chancellor’s tax cuts and can only dream of earning the £1,250 a month that can now be saved tax-free in ISAs, let alone being able to save that amount.

People in the north-east and my constituency hoped that the Chancellor would offer help to do something about the fact that they experience the highest unemployment levels in England. Last month, unemployment in my constituency fell by just 17. Although I welcome that fall, the Government must do more to get people back into work. I have found the Government’s rather triumphalist approach to unemployment quite disturbing. Worryingly, in my constituency youth unemployment has risen in the past two months and more than 900,000 young people are out of work across the country. That is not something to celebrate. It is clear that tens of thousands of young people are not experiencing any recovery at all.

The Government should have used last week Budget to introduce Labour’s compulsory jobs guarantee to get young people and the long-term unemployed off benefits and back to work. The compulsory jobs guarantee would be funded by a repeat of Labour’s successful tax on bank bonuses and by restricting pensions tax relief for people earning more than £150,000.

We know that working people are already £1,600 worse off under the coalition Government than they were before the general election, but the situation is exacerbated in the north-east by wages that are about £50 a week less than the UK average and almost £200 a week less than wages in London. Beth Farhat, regional secretary of the northern TUC, has criticised the Budget for failing to tackle the living standards crisis that is the fundamental concern of workers across our region and for the Chancellor’s failure to show any real support for the living wage or fair pay. According to the TUC, north-east workers are much worse off in real terms, and that is equivalent to about 23 average weekly shops, a year’s worth of energy bills for the average household or 88 tanks of fuel.

The regional secretary of the northern TUC has also questioned the quality of jobs being created in the region. Many are precarious and based on zero-hours contracts. She has also drawn attention to the fact that eight out of 10 private sector jobs that have been created have been in the south of England. The few jobs that are being created in the north-east are predominantly in low-paid sectors and leave many families on low incomes struggling to cope with the rising cost of living and increasingly reliant on payday loan companies or food banks. That is unacceptable and it is particularly worrying that the Government have brought forward no strategies to invest in the north-east of England.

The regional growth fund is not strategic. It is not directed towards areas of greatest need or the parts of the north-east’s economy that are most likely to grow. We need from the Government an approach that will direct funds to the areas of greatest need. To respond to Stephen Mosley, it is not the case that we are not championing our region, because many people in my area are highly skilled and would welcome the opportunity to work, but what they need is support from the Government for them and for industrial growth in the area.