Amendment of the Law

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 1:33 pm on 8th March 2017.

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Photo of Jeremy Corbyn Jeremy Corbyn Leader of Her Majesty's Official Opposition, Leader of the Labour Party 1:33 pm, 8th March 2017

Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker.

There is nothing funny about being one of the 900,000 workers on zero-hours contracts, 55% of whom are women. The Chancellor could have announced a ban on zero-hours contracts, as we have pledged to do, but again he failed. Zero-hours contracts are only the tip of the iceberg, with 4.5 million workers in Britain in insecure work, 2.3 million working variable shift patterns and 1.1 million on temporary contracts. We have long argued for a clampdown on bogus self-employment, but today the Chancellor seems to have put the burden on self-employed workers instead. There has to be a something-for-something deal, so I hope the Chancellor will bring forward extra social security in return. One policy that Labour backs is extending statutory maternity pay to self- employed women, which is likely to cost just £10 million a year.

Low pay and insecure work have consequences for us all. In reality, we all pay for low pay. A million working households have to claim housing benefit. Let me repeat that figure: 1 million working households have to claim housing benefit because their wages are not enough to pay the rent. There are 3 million working families who rely on tax credits simply to make ends meet. This is modern Britain.

The most effective way of boosting wages and increasing job security is, as all studies show, to improve collective bargaining through a trade union. Those are words that the Chancellor did not use in his speech; instead, the Trade Union Act 2016 will further shackle unions and perpetuate the chronic low pay that costs us all a lot of money through in-work benefits. We will promote collective bargaining and repeal the Trade Union Act. This is a Chancellor and a Government who are not on the side of the workers, and not on the side of the taxpayers who pick up the bill for low pay and insecure work.

On International Women’s Day, did the Chancellor deliver a Budget that works for women? According to House of Commons Library analysis that was commissioned by my hon. Friend Sarah Champion, who is doing a brilliant job speaking up for women from our Front Bench, 86% of the savings to the Treasury from tax and benefit changes have fallen on women. Women’s lives have been made more difficult through successive policies of this Government. Women are struggling with more caring responsibilities due to the continuing state of emergency in social care. The WASPI women born in the 1950s are, with little notice, having to face a crisis in their retirement that they could not possibly have predicted. Some 54,000 women a year are forced out of their jobs through maternity discrimination, but they cannot afford this Government’s extortionate fees to take their employer to a tribunal in search of justice.

Women up and down the country will have to wait another 60 years before the gender pay gap is closed. Hundreds of women are being turned away from domestic violence shelters every year due to a lack of space or appropriate services, or simply because the shelters have closed. Mothers who are already struggling are being put under more pressure through cuts to universal credit and tax credits. As if it was not bad enough to cut benefits to children whose only crime is to be born third or fourth in a family, as of next month, most shamefully, women will have to prove that their third child is a product of rape if they wish to qualify for child tax credits for that child. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend Alison Thewliss for their campaigning on this issue, and I hope that the Chancellor will reverse that cut.

This country has a housing crisis—a crisis of supply and of affordability. Since 2010, house building has fallen to its lowest rate in peacetime since the 1920s. The building of social homes for rent is at its lowest level for a quarter of a century. Did the Chancellor empower councils to tackle the housing crisis by allowing them to borrow to build council housing, as we have pledged to do? No. Have the Government replaced council houses sold under the right to buy, as they promised? No; just one in six have been replaced. And was there any commitment to return to councils the £800 million of right to buy proceeds that the Treasury has taken back, which would be enough to build 12,000 homes? No. Did the Chancellor scrap the unfair bedroom tax, as we have pledged to do? No. Did he reverse housing benefit cuts that would take away support from 10,000 young people? No, despite opposition from Shelter, Crisis, Centrepoint and even Mr Burrowes, who has correctly described the policy as “catastrophic”.

Last week, the Institute for Government said that there were “clear warning signs” of the damaging impact of the Government’s cuts on schools, prisons, and health and social care. This Government have taken a sledgehammer to public services in recent years, yet the Chancellor now expects praise for patching up a small part of that damage. This Budget did not provide the funding necessary now to deal with the crisis in our NHS, which the British Medical Association reckons needs an extra £10 billion. The Budget did not provide the funding necessary to end now the state of emergency in social care, which needs £2 billion a year just to plug the gaps, according to the King’s Fund. Those needs will not be met by £2 billion over three years—the money is needed now. More than a million people, mainly elderly people, are desperate for social care and still cannot get it. The money ought to be made available now.

This Government duck the really tough choices, such as asking corporations to pay a little more in tax. Not every local authority can just text Nick and get the deal it wants. Other council services are suffering as well. Our communities are stronger when we have good libraries. They are valuable for children, obviously, but also for the entire community. However, 67 libraries closed last year because of local government underfunding, and 700 Sure Start centres closed because of a lack of local authority funding, denying the life chances that a Labour Government delivered with the opening of Sure Start centres in the 1990s. Six hundred youth centres have closed as well. These painful decisions are being taken by councils not because they want to do it, but because they just do not have enough money even to keep essential services running, following the slashing of their budgets year on year. And it goes on—this affects our communities and lives in so many ways. Last year, councils proposed the sell-off of school playing fields with the equivalent size of 500 football pitches— 500 pitches unavailable for young people to indulge in sport. Surely it is our duty as a community to ensure that all our young people, wherever they live, have a decent chance to grow up with a library, a playing field and a Sure Start centre. It is not a lot to ask.

The Chancellor boasts of a strong economy, but he abandoned the previous Chancellor’s targets, so let me give a more realistic context for today’s figures. The deficit was going to be eradicated in 2015—do we all remember the long-term economic plan?—and debt was going to peak at 80% of GDP and then start falling. Our economy is not prepared for Brexit. It still suffers from underinvestment, an over-reliance on consumer spending, and wholly unsustainable levels of personal and household debt. Investment must be evenly spread around our country. Despite today’s announcements, London continues to receive six times as much investment as the north-east. Labour is backing a fair funding formula for investment so that every area gets its fair share of capital spending. What has been announced today does not achieve that. The Government cannot build a northern powerhouse or a midlands engine if investment does not follow the soundbite.

Our country spends 1.7% of GDP on research and development, which is well below the OECD average. The strongest economies spend over 3%. In the immediate term, the Chancellor must focus his attention—he did not have much to say about this—on the precarious future of skilled workers’ jobs at Vauxhall in Ellesmere Port and Luton, and at Ford in Bridgend. Exporting businesses would have more confidence if the Government clearly committed to negotiating for tariff and impediment-free access to the single market and dropped the reckless threat of turning Britain into a tax haven on the shores of Europe.

One of the biggest challenges facing our country is environmental—climate change. The Government are failing to lead and failing to drive a mission-led industrial strategy, which our Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee has recommended. The Chancellor failed to make energy efficiency a national infrastructure priority. There was no commitment to establish zero-carbon standards on new buildings, and he was unclear about investment in public transport that will definitely reduce pollution. The poor air quality is appalling. It is killing thousands of people in this country and taking away the life chances of many children who grow up alongside polluted roads. The good work being done by Labour’s London Mayor, Sadiq Khan, and by the Welsh Labour Government has rightly recognised air quality as a public health crisis, particularly for children. We have to deal with this crisis urgently.

There cannot be an industrial strategy or productivity gains without serious investment in skills. Adult skills training has been cut by 54% and further education by 14%. The small amounts committed today are long overdue, but woefully insufficient. The schools budget is being cut by 8% over the coming years. Does the Chancellor want fewer teachers and teaching assistants, larger classes or shorter school days? Which is it? I agree with the Prime Minister that every child deserves a decent education and every community deserves a decent school, but we should achieve that by working with communities to provide those schools, not by plonking in selective schools that communities are not demanding. The money announced by the Prime Minister yesterday for new grammar schools is, frankly, a vanity project. The Government should cancel this gimmick and reject selection and segregation. Why do they not honour their own 2015 manifesto pledge to protect per pupil funding, which has clearly not happened?

This Budget lacks ambition for this country and fairness. It demonstrates again this Government’s appalling priorities: another year of tax breaks for the few and public service cuts for the many. When the Prime Minister took office, she said:

“If you’re one of those families, if you’re just managing, I want to address you directly.”

This Budget did not address them; it failed them. This Budget does nothing to tackle low pay, nothing to solve the state of emergency that persists for the many people who demand and need health and social care now, and nothing to make a fair economy that truly works for everyone. It is built on unfairness and on a failure to tackle unfairness in our society.