The Economy

Part of Business of the House – in the House of Commons at 4:39 pm on 4th June 2015.

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Photo of Stephen Timms Stephen Timms Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions) 4:39 pm, 4th June 2015

Thank you and congratulations, Madam Deputy Speaker. As you have said, we have had a good debate, which has demonstrated the seriousness and commitment with which we are ready to take up our duties as Opposition Members.

It has been widely acknowledged in this debate that my right hon. Friend Edward Miliband, the former leader of our party, made a fine and powerful contribution. It was especially welcome for being so soon after our bruising election defeat. He addressed the topic of one nation, which was the theme of his leadership as well, drawing attention to the problem of rising inequality across western democracies. He spoke of the rungs of the ladder getting further apart and reminded the Prime Minister of his 2006 commitment to address relative poverty. I think the whole House will look forward to my right hon. Friend developing those ideas in the months ahead.

We have had valuable contributions from both sides of the House. I particularly congratulate everyone who has made their maiden speech today, including Huw Merriman, Lucy Frazer, the hon. Members for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens), for Horsham (Jeremy Quin) and for Cannock Chase (Amanda Milling), my hon. Friends the Members for Greenwich and Woolwich (Matthew Pennycook) and for Cardiff Central (Jo Stevens), the hon. Members for Mid Worcestershire (Nigel Huddleston), for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Roger Mullin) and for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake), my hon. Friend Louise Haigh and the hon. Members for North Dorset (Simon Hoare) and for Charnwood (Edward Argar). I congratulate each of them and wish them well for their membership of this House. The whole House will look forward to hearing more from each of them in the years ahead.

At the heart of this debate is the security of working families. Many families feel deeply insecure at the moment, in ways spelled out in a fine maiden speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich and Woolwich. How is the programme that has been announced going to affect them? We have yet to hear clear answers from the Government as to how they plan to strengthen the foundations of our economy so that we can deal with the deficit, control social security costs and secure better living standards and a better future for the working people of Britain.

My hon. Friend Chris Leslie began by highlighting the fragility of our economic recovery. Productivity continues to stagnate, leaving output per worker far behind that of comparable advanced economies—a point that was highlighted by Stewart Hosie.

Mr Clarke was right to point out that employers are struggling to find people with the right skills for their jobs. Many employees have roles that do not make full use of their talents and potential, and we have heard a great deal in the debate about the grave challenges relating to infrastructure and the need for more progress. Those underlying weaknesses will make it harder to get the public finances in order and to get social security spending under control.

Fragility in the economy translates into insecurity for working families, who have seen their living standards go backwards over recent years and still worry about whether they will be able to keep on top of their bills. Working families are struggling to balance the demands of work with the rising cost of childcare. They wonder whether the NHS will still be there for them when they need it in future and want their children to have a decent career and a realistic prospect of getting on the housing ladder. Too many at the moment are stuck in low-paid, insecure work and a growing number are depending on housing benefit to make ends meet. Those families all want to know what difference the measures in this Queen’s Speech will make to them.

There are welcome commitments in some areas, but questions remain about how some of them will be paid for. It is, however, what has been left out that gives the greatest cause for concern—actions not taken, details not provided—and makes many families less secure and fear for the future.

We all support any cut in taxes for low-paid workers, but we also need a serious plan to tackle low pay and boost wages for the majority by raising investment, as my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff Central pointed out in her excellent speech. The hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton also rightly called for the adoption of a living wage in the UK. We need to raise the levels of skills and productivity across the economy, securing sustainable tax revenues and reducing the reliance on in-work benefits.

It was disappointing to have sprung on the House this afternoon, without any proper detail or explanation, a series of spending cuts in the Chancellor’s speech. There is a press release that outlines what they are, but there is no proper information. We should have had a statement so that the House could have scrutinised the cuts. They include a significant cut to the skills budget.

We will welcome any help for working parents with childcare, but families can be forgiven for believing it when they see it, after five years in which it has become harder, not easier, to afford the childcare they need. There is a worry that the proposals in the Queen’s Speech are likely to result in fewer affordable homes and bigger housing benefit bills for taxpayers.

Britain succeeds only when working people succeed. Hard work should be rewarded, prosperity should be shared and we should protect the most vulnerable. Those elements, which are vital for our society, need to be underpinned by a strong social security net. The Opposition support the work that local authorities are doing under the Government’s troubled families programme, but we are aware that a majority of the families involved still have nobody in work and that the Work programme is not doing enough to help them. We will be glad to see additional money for apprenticeships.

We have made clear our support for the principle of a benefit cap to ensure that people are better off in work and for reforms to ensure that young people are earning or learning, and do not become caught in a benefits system that at the moment does too little to improve their skills and prospects. We will scrutinise—[Interruption.]