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Why today? Why have I chosen today, and this debate, to break what I hoped might be the habit of a lifetime in resisting the urge to make a maiden speech? My friends and colleagues will know that I have been trying flipping hard to avoid doing it.
It is not because I did not want to thank my predecessor for the long and dedicated service he gave to South Cambridgeshire and to the Government, though I must admit that sometimes his shoes do feel incredibly roomy for these small feet. Andrew Lansley absolutely deserves our praise, and he will be rightly rewarded next week when he takes his seat in the House of Lords. It is not because I did not want to shout from the rooftops about my constituency. I am certain that I bore everyone rigid about the economic miracle that is South Cambridgeshire; I am so, so proud to represent its people.
It is because today I can sit on my hands no longer. My decision to become an MP is a very, very recent one. It was the Tottenham riots of 2011 that shook me from my comfort zone. Night after night, my television showed me a country that was falling apart—my country—with social breakdown and an economy on the verge of collapse. I felt so strongly that I had to step forward and lend a hand. Today, I feel that way again. So I picked a team—the blue team. I believed they were the party who could bring us back from the brink, and we have started to do that. This Government have taken tough but prudent decisions and employment has reached levels never seen before. Britain is back, and I am immensely proud of this Government for their role in that. So I hope that I will see again those gems of prudence and wise judgment that drew me to the Conservative party, before it is too late.
Too late for what? Too late to stop us getting things wrong, and the timing wrong, on changes to tax credits. Believe me when I say that I entirely agree with the principle that tax credits should not be used to subsidise wages. It is not sustainable and it sends the wrong message about the kind of country and the kind of people that we want to be. Because I know that tax credits do need to change, I cannot support the black and white motion that is in front of us today. I am sorry, but I believe that the Opposition are wrong to say that we must not touch tax credits. However, a detailed debate about them does need to be had, and I am far from being the only Member on the Government Benches who recognises that. It is right that people are encouraged to strive for self-reliance and to find work that pays for their independence from the state, but I worry that our single-minded determination to reach a budget surplus is betraying who we are. I know that true Conservatives have compassion running through their veins.
I have refrained from making a speech so far because sadly most days I feel that Members on both sides of the House are firmly married to their positions regardless of the debate, and so, frankly, why prolong the agony? Why sit in the Chamber for hours when I know I could be concentrating on helping my constituents with immediate needs now? But today is different. Today, every Conservative Member who knows who we really are has a duty to remind those who have forgotten. We are the party of the working person—the person who leaves for work while it is still dark, who strives to provide for themselves and their family with pride: a pride that says, “I will go to work. Even though I still can’t quite make ends meet, I will still go to work, because to work is to have pride, and to have pride is to be British.”
I am not interested in the colour of the Government who created a bloated welfare state—that is in the past. I do not care whose fault it is, but I do know one thing: it is not the fault of the recipients of tax credits. It is the responsibility of Government, whoever they may be—those who set and change policy and those who set the rules by which these families live. If we want to change those rules, we have to support the people through that change. This is not a spreadsheet exercise. This is not a Budget document on a piece of paper. We are talking about real people—working people.
Yes, the income tax threshold has risen and will continue to rise, and that is fantastic. The minimum wage is increasing—brilliant! I am so proud of my Government that they have made this happen. But the timing of changes to tax credits is not concurrent. When we talk about moving towards the ideal goal of a lower-welfare, lower-tax, higher-wage economy, that is right, but I also hear us talking about the financial impact on people “over the Parliament”—that is the phrase I hear. But people on the breadline cannot wait for the Parliament to pass along. Many live hand to mouth every day.
I suspect that you and I could weather such a transition period, Madam Deputy Speaker—we could pull in our belts—but many of the families affected by the proposed changes do not have that luxury. Choosing whether to eat or heat is not a luxury. That is the reality.
Conservatives pride themselves on cutting their cloth according to their means, but what if there is no cloth left to cut? How many of us really know what it feels like? How many of us have walked in those shoes?
To expect people to immediately find more hours or better-paid work suggests, I am afraid, a level of naivety about the skills of some of our people. Also, are we out of touch with the economies and environments of some of our towns and cities? We can support people to get there, and I believe that can be done relatively quickly, but not overnight. That is the crux of the debate and the part that many of us on the Conservative Benches cannot reconcile.
I became an MP to stand up for the vulnerable, to lead the way for those too tired to find it for themselves. That is the role of Government, too. My first loyalty is to those people and it is to them that I now speak. To suggest that some Conservative Members may challenge the Government’s approach only because they fear for their seats is offensive. This is not about retaining votes.
Change is not always a sign of weakness; it can show strength. Did the British public, who were so concerned about immigration before the election, condemn us when we reacted to the photograph of that little Syrian boy? No, they told us to open our arms. When the International Monetary Fund decried our economic plan for not being fast enough and not showing enough growth, we remained steadfast in our belief that slow growth was sustainable. So too must be these changes.
Our debt has been falling consistently while those who need protection have been protected. Is now really the time to change that successful strategy? I would not be embarrassed even once—never mind five times—if we decided to review our approach.
Yes, being in government does mean making tough decisions, but tough decisions must also be strategic. One of the greatest challenges facing my South Cambridgeshire constituency is the affordability of housing. A constituency does not function—a country and its economy does not function—if the people who run the engine cannot afford to operate it. We need every teaching assistant, care worker, cleaner and shop worker to secure this economic recovery. To pull ourselves out of debt, we should not be forcing those working families into it.
The Prime Minister has asked us to ensure that everything we do passes the family test. Cutting tax credits before wages rise does not achieve that. Showing children that their parents will be better off not working at all does not achieve that. Sending a message to the poorest and most vulnerable in our society that we do not care does not achieve that, either.
I believe that the pace of these reforms is too hard and too fast. As the proposals stand, too many people will be adversely affected. Something must give. For those of us proud enough to call ourselves compassionate Conservatives, it must not be the backs of the working families we purport to serve.
Several hon. Members rose—