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I say to the hon. Members for Plymouth, Moor View (Johnny Mercer) and for South Cambridgeshire (Heidi Allen) that it is never easy to make a speech with which most of those on the same Benches disagree. I have been in that position myself, so I commend them on their fortitude.
I want to talk about the effect these proposals would have on my constituency. Paradoxically, 60% of my constituency is in Lewisham, one of the poorest boroughs in London, and 40% is in Bromley, one of the richest. Lewisham is not the richest, but it is not the poorest either—that honour, if an honour it be, resides elsewhere—but it does have the highest proportion of any of the 32 London boroughs of people above the benefits level but below average earnings. They are the working poor, and they will be the hardest hit, should these proposals go forward. Lewisham also has the highest proportion of people working outside their borough, so travel costs are a factor for those attempting to work their way out of dependency.
I do not accept the false dichotomy, which some people presented, between strivers and shirkers, but the people who will suffer the most under these proposals would fall into any category definition of “strivers”. Almost 25% of families in my constituency receive tax credits; 8,600 families will be affected, while 5,500 in-work families will lose up to £1,300 from next April, according to the Library. The total loss to some of the most vulnerable people in the constituency will be something over £7 million. Strangely enough, my constituency is better off than the other Lewisham constituencies. Those of my hon. Friends the Members for Lewisham East (Heidi Alexander) and for Lewisham, Deptford (Vicky Foxcroft) have far higher numbers than mine, so the effect across the borough as a whole can be imagined.
The Government argue that the increase in the minimum wage, which they try to describe as a living wage though it is nothing of the sort, to £9 an hour by 2020 will offset the cuts. It will do nothing of the kind. The most pernicious element of these proposals is the decision to take money away from people from next April while not paying the so-called compensation until four years later. As others have said, it is not just the nature of the proposals, but their vicious timing, that will do such damage to so many people.
The Government say, “Let us enable people to keep more of their own money, rather than taking it off them and then giving it back”. As a general proposition, I think that is fairly sound, and it is arguably a more efficient way of running the economy, but it ignores the nature and efficacy of a progressive tax system: the Government raise taxes from those who can afford it to pay for infrastructure and other schemes, but also to ensure a minimum standard of living across the country through a benefits system that is an integral part of the welfare state—although I accept that a balance will always need to be struck between taxation and expenditure.
Some Government Members, such as the former Chancellor, Mr Clarke, who is no longer in his seat, and others, almost made it sound like the tax credits system was such a liability that it should be abolished altogether. That was their import, but they are wrong. The tax credits system is not there to subsidise poor employers—we are united across the House on that point; it is a crucial taper between the world of benefits reliance and the world of work. Without it, the option would not be for people to be in better-paid employment, but to be in unemployment. That would be the reality.
There is a case for reform of the system, and my right hon. Friend Frank Field along with many others has done a great deal of work in this area. While new claimants can be treated separately, there must be transitional protections for some of the hardest-working and most vulnerable families in the country.