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Amendment of the Law

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 5:14 pm on 23rd March 2015.

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Photo of Iain Duncan Smith Iain Duncan Smith The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions 5:14 pm, 23rd March 2015

The hon. Gentleman agrees with me. The key point is that we want to get people into work, including skilled work, and for them to develop skills not only while they are in work, but as they come through apprenticeships and university.

I want to return to the make-work scheme, because I have a feeling in my bones that the Opposition are beginning to slide away from it. They have failed to answer a number of questions. We have asked them time and again how many private businesses have signed up to the jobs guarantee, but we have never had an answer. We have been told endlessly that there is a lot of interest, but we have never heard any examples.

I heard the shadow Chancellor on, I think, a Radio 4 programme and he seemed rather scared and unusually unable to be coherent. [Interruption.] All right, I will drop the “unusually”. He was unable to list the vast number of private sector companies taking part. When asked how many there were, he seemed to lose his nerve and said:

“But if not, you can do it through the voluntary sector. If not, you have to have a final backstop: a public work scheme.”

The shadow Chancellor has pretty much made it clear that the scheme is going to be about jobs created not in the private sector, but in the public sector. [Interruption.] Oh no, it will not: Stephen Timms knows that to be the case. In other words, the Opposition would repeat the mistakes of the past.

I hope that the hon. Member for Leeds West will answer another question we have asked the Opposition time and again: how long will the guarantee last? Back in 2011, we heard about a 12-month guarantee for young people unemployed for one year. By 2013, the proposal had morphed into a six-month guarantee—half the time previously advertised—for those unemployed for two years. Even that is not enough, for as Labour begins to see what a disaster the policy is and the shadow Chancellor begins to wind away from it—there is no interest in it from private sector firms and it has no traction with business—they seem to be beginning to realise that it is not worth all the money they are talking about spending.

I had a look at the Labour website when it launched its tuition fee policy. Interestingly, buried in the relevant document—I would like to say it was in the small print, although the print was pretty small anyway—I found that the scope of the flagship jobs guarantee had been halved again. This announcement was made without fanfare and without anyone taking to the airwaves to tell everybody what a wonderful scheme it was going to be. Labour now proposes “a six-month job”—remember it was for a year originally—

“for any more 18-24 year olds who find themselves claiming Jobseeker’s Allowance for a year”.

It also proposes “a three-month job”—it used to be for six months—

“for the over 25s out of work for two years”,

not one year. In other words, Labour is edging back, killing off its policy bit by bit, and I suspect that eventually it will let it go altogether.

Following a Budget in which the Chancellor once again pledged that no spending commitments would be unfunded, the final and most significant unanswered question—I hope the hon. Lady will answer it, because this is her last opportunity to do so—is: how will the jobs guarantee be paid for? That is a legitimate question, for the Budget punched a hole in Labour’s two proposals with two new measures: the first to levy funding from the banks and the second to restrict pensions tax relief.

Given that the shadow Work and Pensions Secretary has herself declared that

“we need to make sure that the sums add up”,

it is right that we do the maths, starting with the cost of the jobs guarantee, an estimation of which was done by Treasury officials in January. The cost of the jobs guarantee for 2015-16 is forecast to be £1.54 billion for over-25s and £540 million for under-25s. That is £2 billion in total in one year alone, which is far more than the Labour estimate. Taking the small print of the document we found, even if the figure in it is halved, as the Labour U-turn seems to make clear that it will be, it is more than three times the £300 million a year that Labour says it will cost, at close on £1 billion a year.

When the hon. Lady gets up to speak, I hope that she will explain how Labour will fund the jobs guarantee. If she is going to use the bankers’ bonus tax again, I must tell her that it has been spent 11 times over. Here are the things on which it has been spent: reversing the VAT increase—£12.75 billion; reversing the tax credit savings—£5.8 billion; more housing—£1.2 billion; reversing the child benefit savings—£3.1 billion; more capital spending—£5.8 billion; child care—£800 million; and there are more. The last Chancellor, the right hon. Member for Edinburgh South West, said that he did not think it would be feasible to repeat the one-off bankers’ bonus tax, but the reality is that Labour will repeat it to pay again and again for other things.

Another announcement in the Budget was the excellent decision to reduce the tax-free lifetime allowance. It had already been reduced from the £1.8 million inherited from Labour to £1.25 million, and it will now fall to £1 million. The latest change will save about £600 million a year. Importantly, it will affect only 4% of those approaching retirement. That is in stark contrast to Labour’s proposal to reduce the tax-free annual allowance, which would plunder the pension pots of moderately paid, long-serving public servants such as police officers, teachers, nurses and others. With the Government already taking effective steps to curb the size of the very largest pension pots—my right hon. Friend the Minister for Pensions has been involved in that—Labour’s proposed pension tax relief changes will be left null and void. Despite the fact that Labour has committed the money for the purpose of increasing working and child tax credits and, very recently, to pay for the £3.1 billion cost of lower tuition fees, it will apparently be used only to fund the jobs guarantee. As for Labour’s final funding proposal, restricting pension tax relief for those with incomes of more than £150,000, it would not come in for a further three years.