The Nasty Parties’ (I include the Liberal Democrats now – let them all be tarred with the same brush) have voted to squeeze benefit increases to just one per cent for the next three years, after the third reading of the Benefits Uprating Bill in the House of Commons.
That Bill will now go to the House of Lords, where I sincerely hope it will receive a more intelligent examination than many Conservatives and Liberal Democrats gave it in the other place. To help them with that work, I wanted to highlight some of the issues raised by opponents to the Bill, during yesterday’s debate.
Firstly, the government is punishing people who are already hard-up for the failure of its own economic policy. As Stephen Timms said, we were promised that the policy would lead to steady growth and falling unemployment, but we got a double-dip recession, perhaps set to become triple-dip, depending on figures due this week. Unemployment is officially forecast to go up next year, so spending on unemployment benefits will go up, and borrowing will go up too.
The government’s response is to force down the incomes of those who already receive the least in order to cover the cost of its mistakes; the saving made by the Bill’s measures will be about the same as the increase in social security spending.
In April, the government will give a tax cut to everybody earning more than £150,000 per year, and for 8,000 people who earn over £1 million a year, that means a cut of around £2,000 a week. At the same time, someone receiving the adult rate of Jobseekers’ Allowance will get an extra 71p a week.
The change in the personal tax allowance will not help people in work on low incomes. Citizens Advice has pointed out that “any rise in net earnings leads to a reduction in housing benefit and council tax benefit.” In fact the improvement for people in low-income work was recorded by Helen Goodman: 13 pence per week.
Meanwhile, the average price of weekly grocery shopping has risen by 17 per cent and the energy companies have hiked up their prices by around 11 per cent.
The government lied when it said people in the support group of Employment and Support Allowance are protected – they are not. A lone parent with three children who is in the support group will lose £600 in 2015-16 because of the exponential way in which the Bill will grind down the incomes of people who are already hard-up. [CAB]
In fact the impact assessment tells us disabled households are more likely than others to be hit by the changes in the Bill.
Child poverty is set to skyrocket, thanks to the measures of the Nasty Government. The Institute for Fiscal Studies tells us that, taking account of everything that the Government announced before the autumn statement, child poverty was already set to increase by 400,000 by 2015 and 800,000 by 2020.
Although it was not mentioned in the autumn statement or the impact statement, and a question to the Minister has gone unanswered, the government has let it slip – in a statement by a different minister – that the three years of one-per-cent uprating will increase child poverty by 200,000 – on top of the increase that is already due.
That means that we are on track for one million more children below the poverty line by 2020 – reversing all the progress made during the 15 years since Labour came to power in 1997.
And that is only the figure the government has been prepared to acknowledge in relation to relative income. It has said nothing about the impact on absolute poverty, material deprivation or persistent poverty — measures to which it committed itself in the Child Poverty Act 2010.
The Children’s Society estimates that the following professions are also affected: 300,000 nurses and midwives in the NHS; 150,000 staff in primary and nursery schools; 1.14 million admin workers, secretaries and secretarial assistants; 44,000 electricians and electrical fitters; 510,000 sales assistants and cashiers; and 42,000 armed forces personnel.
“We certainly want it to be more worthwhile for people to be in work, but forcing down the incomes of those who are out of work is not the way to do it,” said Mr Timms. I have been saying that, here, for many months, and it did my heart good to see that it had been said in the House of Commons.
He said uprating should indeed be in line with inflation, as it always was in the past.
He continued: “The Bill was designed by the Chancellor to promote his party’s narrow interest.” Yes – the Conservatives are a minority-interest party. This Bill, and the tax cut for those earning more than £150,000 per year, prove it. They support the super-rich; you and I don’t get a look-in.
And he pointed out that the government did not need an Act of Parliament to restrict benefits upratings. “The Chancellor thought he could boost his party’s standing if he introduced a Bill, so we have one,” he said. Absolutely correct. The plan was to make the Labour Party, in opposing the plan, look like the party of scroungers and slobs. Instead, the Conservatives have confirmed themselves as the ‘Nasty Party’, oppressors of those who most need government help.
“Ministers still say that they are committed to eradicating child poverty,” said Mr Timms. “It says so in the coalition agreement. That commitment is clearly now fictitious. Ministers should stop pretending. They have given up on reducing child poverty. Now they are implementing policies that will force child poverty up.”
Let me draw your attention to the words of Toby Perkins, who tried to put the debate into proper context: “There is a particular irony in the Chancellor, who was a millionaire the day he was born, railing against the extravagance of those on £71 a week.”
I think I can sum up the government’s argument with the words of Charlie Elphicke, who said around five million people in the UK could work, but don’t. He said they need more of an incentive, including an economic incentive, and quoted the Chancellor, Gideon – sorry, George – Osborne: “Over the last five years, those on out-of-work benefits have seen their incomes rise twice as fast as those in work. With pay restraint in businesses and Government, average earnings have risen by about 10 per cent since 2007. Out-of-work benefits have gone up by about 20 per cent. That is not fair to working people who pay the taxes that fund them.”
In other words, he wants to shrink the state (the government’s own actions have created a hole in its finances; it wants to cut public spending to fill that hole) and he can’t do his maths. He compounded his foolishness with a well-repeated lie: “Money is tight in this country today. The reason for that is that [Labour] drove our economy off a cliff, overspending for years and displaying fiscal incontinence that was unparalleled in this country in the last century.”
That is absolutely untrue. Labour ran a lower deficit than the Conservatives throughout its years in power. The increases in the deficit and the national debt were caused by the banking crisis. Conservatives and Liberal Democrats are on record as having supported what the then-Labour government did to solve the mess that was created by high-earning bankers (about whom the current government has done nothing worth discussing). They would have done the same thing and created the same debt.
Fortunately, Ian Mearns was on hand to put Mr Elphicke right: “The hon. Member… forgot to mention that, while those on benefits have had their benefits uprated at twice the rate of those in work in percentage terms over the past five years, the actual increase in financial terms has been on average about £49 for those in work and about £12 for those on benefits.
“Percentages are meaningless; 50 per cent or 100 per cent of very little is still very little. Making comparisons in the way that he did demeans the debate.”
He added: “I think it is the ultimate insult to ordinary people’s intelligence to say that in order to incentivise those at the top end of the economy we have to pay them more, while incentivising people at the bottom end by paying them less. ‘We are all in this together’ — I don’t think.”
Lords, please take note. If any of you uses the argument about percentage increases, I sincerely hope to see others ask that person whether they will be supporting the government on the basis of something that has been proven – and is now known to the public at large – to be utter, meaningless nonsense.