Universal Credit: 13th March 2018

Anna Soubry (Broxtowe) (Con)
Could the hon. Gentleman just remind us all that a note had been left by a member of his Government that said, quite properly, there was no money left? Not only have this Government restored our economy, but in so doing they have absolutely protected the very people that matter to all of us. This is tribal nonsense.

Mr Lewis
I have a lot of respect for the right hon. Lady, but to claim that the financial crisis was anything other than a consequence of a crash that started on Wall Street is the biggest distortion of history that we listen to in this country.

Anna Soubry
The hon. Gentleman is rewriting history. The fact is that if the Labour Government had fixed the roof when the sun was shining, when that crisis came along they could have weathered the storm. That is what this responsible Government have been doing since 2010.

Mr Lewis
The right hon. Lady’s party wanted us to regulate the banks and the financial services sector less than under the regulatory system we had in place. It committed to matching our spending and borrowing and did not want us to rescue the banks. Imagine if that prescription had been followed at the time we were dealing with the financial crisis.

The Government’s choices are motivated by an ideological project to wither the state, irrespective of its impact. Their disproportionate cuts have choked off growth and destroyed too much of our social fabric. Their tax changes have failed dismally to tackle tax avoidance or to ensure that, in tough times, those with the most carry the greatest burden. Their failure to invest in infrastructure, skills and jobs has led to economic growth that is anaemic compared with similar economies. The Government’s own assessments predict that this economic failure will be made even worse by the uncertainty and instability that are the inevitable consequences of Brexit.

Perhaps right the hon. Lady will agree with me on this point: history will record that the referendum was nothing to do with the national interest or giving voice to the will of the people. It was David Cameron’s fix for managing the Tory party through a general election.

Anna Soubry
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr Lewis
I am not giving way again to the right hon. Lady. Far from being the party of economic competence, hers is the party of economic chaos.

To be clear, the policies we are opposing today are neither necessary nor acceptable in a civilised society; they are political choices made by this Tory Government. As we have heard in this debate, Tory Members are in denial. Too many of our fellow citizens might as well be living in a different country from the one they describe. The reality for those people is food banks, perpetual debt, a poor quality of life and a lack of hope for themselves and their children. Some, of course, are dependent on benefits, but increasing numbers are people in work on permanent low pay and insecure contracts. This should offend any Member who believes not only in social justice but in the future of mainstream politics. Here and abroad, people who feel left behind by mainstream politics are increasingly turning to anti-establishment nationalism, which spreads hate and division. That is another reason these policies are so irresponsible.

Mr Simon Clarke (Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland) (Con)
A few moments ago, the hon. Gentleman denigrated Brexit, yet his own area of Bury voted to leave the EU. How would that have helped with the politics of disenfranchising people and making them turn towards extremes?

Mr Lewis
The hon. Gentleman entirely misses the point. Of course I believe that the result of the referendum must be respected; I question the motive for the referendum ​in the first place. It was David Cameron’s folly—that is how history will remember him—and was done in the interests of the Conservative party, not those of our country.

Anna Soubry
I too have respect—some—for the hon. Gentleman, although it is beginning to wane. I do not want to fall out with him, but I would make one point to him. It is not good enough just to blame it all on David Cameron. The hon. Gentleman, like me and the majority of people in the House, walked through the Lobbies in support of a referendum, and we are now dealing with the consequences. We were all complicit in agreeing that the British people should vote and determine whether we stayed or left.

Mr Lewis
I simply say—I think that history will bear this out—that it was done purely to keep the Conservative party together and to get through a general election. It had nothing to do with the national interest and everything to do with the arrogance of the then Prime Minister and Chancellor in believing that they would almost inevitably win such a referendum.

I will turn now to the measures on universal credit and free school meals. The Government could hardly have made more of a mess universal credit. The National Audit Office stated that the project had suffered from

“weak management, ineffective control and poor governance”.

Is that the responsibility of the current Secretary of State or her predecessor? Perhaps she would like to respond—no? Okay. Cuts to universal credit passed in the last two years have left a majority of families worse off on universal credit than under the system it replaces, and this further reduction in support will add to their financial pain. The proposed threshold could have a negative effect on work incentives and risks creating poverty traps for families on universal credit, which goes completely against the Government’s goal that universal credit should always reward work.

In the 1980s, Tory policies created a deeply divided society. They have learnt nothing from history and are once again fuelling a cycle of intergenerational deprivation that hurts those most affected but which in the end damages us all. I hope the House will today force the Government to rethink these regressive measures.

Anna Soubry
Will the hon. Lady give way?

Laura Pidcock
Time is very short, so I am certainly not going to give way to somebody who has intervened many times and was not here for the start of the debate.

Nearly 2,000 children in my constituency quite rightly—

Anna Soubry
Just for the record, Madam Deputy Speaker, I was in this place when the debate started.

Laura Pidcock
Well, that was not my experience. Anyway, the idea that claimants in my area—[Interruption.]