House of Commons, 22 March 2016
Rachel Reeves (Leeds West) (Lab): The Budget was a story of missed targets for the Chancellor and missed opportunities for our country and, like the Budget of 2012, it is rapidly turning into a total mess. I am pleased to see some of the U-turns, but much more is needed.
I associate myself with the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Mr Wright), the Chair of the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee. He spoke powerfully about the importance of rebalancing our economy. That is so much needed, especially after some of the numbers we saw in the Budget last week. As a result of the lower productivity, the lower exports and the other things my hon. Friend spoke about, economic growth has been revised down for every single year of this Parliament. A staggering £71 billion has been knocked off our tax revenues. As a result, the Government are now set to borrow an extra £38 billion over the next five years. That is why, after breaking his promise to clear
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the deficit in the last Parliament, the Chancellor has now broken his pledge to bring the debt down as a share of GDP in this Parliament as well.
Mr Stewart Jackson (Peterborough) (Con): Would the hon. Lady’s argument not have a lot more weight and credibility had her party—as she well knows because of her position on the Front Bench—not opposed every single one of the £83 billion-worth of welfare cuts that had to be made in the wake of the 2010 fiscal inheritance?
Let me deal with the specific issues surrounding personal independence payments and the impact that this Government have had on disabled people. While the fiasco is unfolding around us, let us remember the broader points. This is a Government—the Chancellor, the Prime Minister, the former Secretary of State for Work and Pensions and the current Secretary of State for Work and Pensions—who forced through the bedroom tax, affecting 500,000 people, the majority of them disabled, by about £700 a year. This is the Government who forced through the closure of the independent living fund. This is the Government who forced through cuts to employment and support allowance only last summer, affecting 500,000 people and worth about £30 a week or £1,500 a year. The U-turn on personal independence payments, although welcome, is only a fraction of the damage and the pain that the Government have caused to disabled people in all our constituencies.
Let us be clear what this U-turn means. The new Secretary of State for Work and Pensions came to the Chamber yesterday and said that the Government are not going back to the welfare bill and to disabled people for further cuts. But in the course of yesterday’s statement, that was watered down a little. The Government now have “no plans” to come back to the welfare budget and disability benefits. That is reminiscent of when they had no plans to increase VAT and all the other things they had no plans to do, until they did them and until they hurt the people who least need to be hurt.
When the Chief Secretary winds up the debate this evening, I would like to hear whether there are no plans, or whether the Government can guarantee that there will be no further cuts to the welfare budget or to the benefits of disabled people. We know that there is a black hole of £4.4 billion in the public finances. If it is not the wealthy and not disabled people, who is going to pay the price? Are there going to be further cuts to education, health, defence and our police? Will there be further increases in taxes—on VAT and taxes for ordinary working people? Something has to give and we need some answers about the black hole in the Budget that we are voting on, although we do not know what it means. What does it mean for all those different groups of people?
As the Chair of the Office for Budget Responsibility told us at the Treasury Committee meeting this morning, the issue is not just that there is a £4.4 billion black hole in the social security budget, but that the Government have failed to meet their welfare cap. They are going to fail in every year of this Parliament, by a staggering £20 billion—£20 billion more on social security spending
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in this Parliament than the Government set out, a further black hole in their public finances. Why did they get into this mess in the first place? It is because they wanted to cut taxes for the wealthiest in society. They wanted to cut capital gains tax, increase the threshold before people started paying the 40p rate of tax, and increase the ISA limit from £15,000 to £20,000 so that we can all save the full £20,000 a year tax free. That is great for those who have the money, but most of our constituents are lucky to earn £20,000 a year, let alone put it away in savings. That is why the Government raided the social security budget yet again to give tax cuts to their friends, the wealthiest and the most privileged in our society.
Last week’s Budget could have been different. For example, the Government could have put more money into infrastructure investment. In my constituency, we are paying a heavy price for the floods on 26 December. The Chancellor said earlier that I should have welcomed the money for flood defences, but in 2011 the Government cancelled a flood defence scheme in Leeds worth £135 million. Last week, they announced £35 million for Leeds. Well, I am sorry for not thanking the Chancellor, but an offer of £35 million rather than £135 million is not really worth the thanks, and the businesses in my constituency will pay a heavy price if the rains come again.
Rachael Maskell (York Central) (Lab/Co-op): I was with the Environment Agency just last night, and it told me it will not have sufficient funds to put in place measures—particularly catchment management measures —to prevent future flooding.
Rachel Reeves: Last week, the Government announced £150 million for York, Calder Valley, Leeds and Cumbria. However, as I said, the scheme that was cancelled in Leeds was worth £135 million, and that £150 million is for flood defences, flood resilience and flood maintenance. Yet again, the Government are short-changing people who need them to step up to the mark, as our volunteers in York and Leeds and across the north of England did when the rains fell, the rivers rose and buildings—houses and businesses—were flooded.
Last week’s Budget could have been different. It could have been a different Budget for disabled people. It could have been a Budget that helped ordinary working people and the most vulnerable in our society. It could have been a Budget that put money into the northern powerhouse and the infrastructure that we need. However, it was a different Budget, because this Government have different priorities. That is why we need a Labour Government on the side of ordinary working people and the most vulnerable in our society.