Living Standards: 30th November 2011

Teresa Pearce
I totally agree with my hon. Friend. There is wage stagnation at the bottom of the income ladder. People are seeing their pay frozen at the same time as they face higher food, fuel and energy costs. There is a quiet crisis going on behind the front doors of the homes in my constituency, where families are struggling week in, week out to make ends meet. Their financial affairs can be thrown into total crisis by even the smallest unexpected bill.

Today, therefore, I want to talk about how the Government have decided what side they are on. They have driven on with that course, no matter what. It has to be said that we in this House are the privileged few, and surely the moral duty of those with privilege is to defend those who have little or no power. But that is not what I have witnessed since I came here in May 2010. What I have seen is a systematic, focused political attack by the Government on the poor, the weak and the voiceless.

In the May 2010 emergency Budget child benefit was frozen, housing benefit was capped, the health in pregnancy grant was abolished, and Sure Start grant was restricted to the first child. The Library said that 72% of those cuts fell on women. In October 2010 the same thing happened: more cuts—cuts to local government, cuts to ​Departments whose work affects women, and nearly half a million jobs cut from the public sector. When it comes to cuts, it seems to me that it is “women and children first”.

That leads me on to yesterday’s announcement. In June 2010 the Chancellor announced plans to increase child tax credits above inflation as a measure to prevent rises in child poverty. The spending review in October reaffirmed that pledge. Yesterday the autumn statement said that that decision would be reversed. The Daily Telegraph said today that the Treasury admitted that the cuts in tax credit would “theoretically” push 100,000 children into poverty. Let me tell the House that the child poverty in my constituency is not theoretical. It is heartbreakingly, grindingly real. So why do the coalition Government think that it is fair, or morally right, to hit hardest those who have the least?

It is not just me who thinks this way. The Children’s Society has said that it is “deeply concerned” that the Chancellor

“has decided to compound the hardship felt by low-income families.”

It added:

“Children in low-income families need to be protected from rising living costs. Instead, the Chancellor has condemned thousands of low-income families to a winter of discontent, with many more to come.”

The Working Families charity has said that

“today’s measure will lead to higher levels of in-work poverty, or to more parents being priced out of work.”

Anna Soubry (Broxtowe) (Con)
Is the hon. Lady really saying that child poverty has only existed in her constituency for the past 18 months, and that it did not exist in the 13 years when her party was in power?

Anna Soubry (Broxtowe) (Con)
I would like to open my remarks by trying to find some consensus in this place. What do we, as parents, all want and hope for our children? I think that each and every one of us agrees that we hope to pass on to our children stuff that is better than we have had as we have lived our lives. For example, we want our children to have a better education than we had, a higher quality and standard of living, and perhaps a happier and more fulfilled life. Essentially, we want them to have more and better things than we have enjoyed. We do not want our children to have to bear the burden of debt from a previous generation—a debt and a deficit in which they played no part. I certainly do not want that for my children, who are 20 and 21. It is not right, and it is not fair that they and the rest of their generation, and arguably the generation that will come from them, should bear the burden of the debt and deficit that my generation—the generation in this House—has ratcheted up, particularly as a consequence of the policies adopted by the last Government.

It is breathtaking to sit in this debate listening to the Opposition. It is as though the last 13 years of their Government did not exist. It is as though they were not here, and as though some of them have landed from planet Zog. They talk about things that bear no resemblance to the reality of the policies that they pursued, and the consequences that we are now living with.

It would be ridiculous to try to argue that it is all the fault of the last Government. We know—others have spoken more eloquently and with greater knowledge than me—about the external factors and forces, but at the heart of this nation’s problem is our deficit. One does not have to be a woman or to run a family budget to know that the matter is simple. One works out how much money is coming in, and how much is going out, and tries to ensure that one spends only as much as is coming in. Someone who gets it wrong and spends more than is coming in runs up debt.

Lilian Greenwood
Will the hon. Lady give way?

Anna Soubry
I am more than happy to give way in a moment to the hon. Lady whose constituency is next to mine in Nottingham.

What people do not do—they recognise this if they are responsible—is to borrow more. If they have reached the maximum on their credit card or their overdraft, they must pull in their horns, live within their means, and cut their expenditure to match their income. Opposition Members struggle with that concept, because they never practised it when in government. That is why we have an appalling level of debt and, worst of all, an appalling level of deficit.
 
Toby Perkins
The first thing the hon. Lady seems to be suggesting is that the national debt is a brand new concept. The country has always had a national debt. The reality is that until 2008, her party supported our spending plans. The national debt fell between 1997 and 2007 under the Labour Government. She is talking as though the issue is brand new, but the reality is that a global economic crisis caused the scale of the deficit, and she must take that into account.

Anna Soubry
There we have it: the finest example that we could have expected of an Opposition Member who simply does not get it. Deficit deniers—after 18 months of argument, they still do not understand. It is the structural deficit that is our problem. We are not earning as much as we are paying out. We have this debt, and that is what is causing the economic crisis.

Lilian Greenwood
I do not know what planet the hon. Lady was on yesterday, but here we heard that as a result of the Chancellor’s failed economic plans, more people are out of work and as a result he is having to borrow an extra £158 billion, which is making the deficit worse.

Anna Soubry
Again we have another brilliant example of somebody who just does not get it. They do not understand the problems. Some of the problems are external, as I have explained, but at the heart are the failings of 13 years of Labour Government. Some of us are old enough to remember what happened at the end of the Labour Administration before that. My generation, the ones who did our homework by candlelight, had to pick up the pieces. Who was it who had to sort out the mess that Labour created? A Tory Government—and here we are again, all these years later.

I would like to make another point. We all come from different backgrounds, but we all come here for the same reason: to make change. We all want to make things better for everybody in our society, and I find it deeply offensive when the Labour party claims a monopoly on compassion. No one person, party or side has any such monopoly. Nobody on the Government Benches came to this place to make the life of the poor even worse. In fact, many of us came here because we want to eradicate poverty. How rich it is to hear the comments from the Opposition, who failed to hit all their targets for child poverty—after 13 years of their Labour Government, the difference between rich and poor actually grew. That is their legacy and the indictment of the last Government’s failures.

I believe in fairness as much as I believe in compassion. I would much prefer there not to be any need for regulation, but there must be fairness when it comes to restraint and responsibility among executives over their pay. Other hon. Members have touched on the issue. It is just not on to see the levels of pay and bonuses that we have seen in the financial sector. I urge all those people to exercise restraint and responsibility in difficult times, which affect every other one of us.

I reject the Opposition motion and support the autumn statement so eloquently explained to us yesterday. I do not wish to tread on the toes of the hon. Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood), but I am sure that, like me, she will welcome one of the proposals in that statement—the widening and improvement of the A453. It does not lie in my constituency, although if the Boundary Commission gets its way, a large part of it will, but that work will have a profound benefit for the people of Greater Nottingham and the whole county.

I commend the Conservative-led county council for their efforts in bringing everybody together to persuade the powers that be that the improvement and widening of the A453 would bring great economic benefit to Greater Nottingham, including my constituency of Broxtowe. Many things are happening, such as the ​extension of the tram, that give people hope for the future—the prospect of more jobs and apprenticeships. I am happy to reject the motion and support the Chancellor in all he does to make a better future for all of us, especially our children.

Hugh Bayley (York Central) (Lab)
I am somewhat surprised by how few Members on the Government Benches seem to have realised that the Government’s policy has changed. They have spent 18 months reading out the brief from their Whips Office—or wherever it comes from—and complaining about the legacy of high debt which they inherited when they came to power. However, I say to the hon. Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry) that the national debt at the time of the general ​election was £760 billion. In the first year of the coalition Government, it rose to £905 billion. In the middle of a financial crisis, the coalition Government are doing what the Labour Government did in the middle of a financial crisis. When in opposition, they argued against the private finance initiative.

Anna Soubry
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
 
Hugh Bayley
No; I will make my case, if I may.