Last week I spoke during the Committee Stage of the Finance Bill, which puts into effect the Government’s Budget 2013 proposals, focussing particularly on the effect of the Chancellor’s changes to people in Oldham East and Saddleworth in terms of living standards, fuel poverty, reliance on the foodbank and child poverty. The full speech is below.
Debbie Abrahams: It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hood.
I came to this House just over two years ago, and the main reason I got into politics was my belief in making Britain a fairer society—a more equal society in which the gap between the haves and the have-nots is narrow and in which we protect and look after our most vulnerable people. I believe that to be intuitively right and just, and there is also significant evidence to show that a fairer society benefits everybody in respect not only of life expectancy improvements and mental health benefits, but of educational attainments, improvements in social mobility and in rates of offending. All of us benefit from having a fairer society. Unfortunately, the measures in this Bill contribute not one jot to such a society.
As I said in my speech on the Budget a week or so ago, this Government absolutely fail the anti-poverty test. My hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) mentioned the analysis by the Institute for Fiscal Studies, but there are also those of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, the Child Poverty Action Group, the Resolution Foundation, the New Economics Foundation—and the list goes on. They all reached the same conclusion: the poorer people are, the worse off they are.
Raising the personal allowance does little for the lowest-paid workers, many of whom do not pay tax anyway. Over 682,000 working families receiving child tax credit earn less than £6,420, so I am afraid that they will not benefit at all from the increase in the tax threshold. Taken in conjunction with the welfare cuts they are now facing, the lowest earning taxpayers will receive an income boost of 32p a week or £16.80 a year as compared with those not claiming housing benefit or council tax benefit of up to £112 a year. That does not take into account the impact of the 20% VAT hike back in 2011, the additional 26% rise in food prices since 2009 or the 20% increase in energy costs that households face on their household bills. Nearly 8,000 households in my Oldham East and Saddleworth constituency—nearly one in four—already live in fuel poverty. How are they meant to cope? As other Members have said, our constituency surgeries are crammed with families that are desperate about how they are going to cope in the coming weeks and months. My constituency now has a food bank—the first ever in modern Oldham—and the number of recipients of food bank support has trebled over the last quarter. I am deeply concerned about that.
Geraint Davies: I visited the food bank in my own constituency only last Monday, and the key issue put to me was that food banks were designed as places of crisis able to give two or three parcels to people in the moment of crisis—for instance, when benefits had been delayed or something had gone wrong. They were not designed to sustain life over time. I mentioned earlier a constituent whose money available for food had gone down from £21 to £11; he just cannot cope on an ongoing basis. If the food banks do not save him, he is on the way out.
Debbie Abrahams: My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. We are not talking only about people on out-of-work benefits either, as many of the families affected are working families that are struggling to survive.
As I have mentioned, the Chancellor’s own distributional analysis shows that the cumulative impact of tax, tax credit and benefit measures means net reductions in income for the poorest 40% of households in the country. Although there is strong evidence to show, as other countries have shown, that increasing the spending power of the poorest families helps to boost economies, the Chancellor has done nothing to help them or the economy.
In the short term, the Child Poverty Action Group has estimated that between 2010 and 2015 absolute child poverty will have increased by 600,000 as a result of the Government’s spending plans. Two wards in my constituency have child poverty levels affecting nearly one in two households. That is absolutely unacceptable in a society such as ours. It leads one to question what the Government mean when they say they are committed to child poverty, let alone how they are fulfilling their obligations under the Child Poverty Act 2010.
I also have deep concerns about the impact, particularly of the new benefit changes, on people with disabilities. One in four disabled people already live in poverty, and with the recent welfare changes that is set to increase. I fear that this could be enough to drive people over the edge.
Many of us have already said that these measures are ideologically driven. In tandem with the downgrading of equality and human rights in the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill, which we debated on Tuesday, it is clear that this coalition Government have no commitment to a fairer society. As we have heard before, this is all about choices, and it is quite clear where this Government’s priorities lie. Their response to their failing economic policies is to give tax breaks to the wealthiest in society—£3 billion to more than 300,000 people earning over £150,000 a year, with an average gain of £10,000. What is there for people on low pay? Absolutely nothing. When we take the tax and tax credit benefits into account, we realise that it is not just the poor who are being hit. We know that the average loss to households for this coming financial year is £891.
The Chancellor said in last year’s autumn statement that we needed a welfare system that we could afford. Tax credits and benefits form part of the “automatic stabilisers” that help dampen economies in booms and boost it in recession. That is what we have seen. In spite of the disappointing employment figures yesterday, the effect on unemployment has been less during this recession and in the past because of these stabilisers.
The choices the Government make are underpinned by their ideology—to create an “us and them” culture with power and wealth retained by the wealthy and powerful. By attacking universal benefits such as child benefit, they hope people will start to see our welfare system as irrelevant—and then quietly dismantle it. I am proud of our model of social welfare, born out of the second world war when we literally were “all in it together”. I want to retain this model with its principles of inclusion, support and security for all, protecting any one of us, should we fall on hard times, assuring our dignity and the basics of life, and helping us all back on our feet. It is often said that the mark of a civilised society is how we care for our most vulnerable. It is a mark of this Government, their ideological priorities and their economic incompetence that they are singularly failing to do that. Fortunately, as recent opinion polls have shown, the British public are seeing through this Government. They are exposing and seeing through the myths peddled by this Government. I shall leave it there to allow more hon. Members to participate in the debate.