Savings Accounts and Health in Pregnancy Grant Bill Debate
26th October 2010
Speaking in the House of Commons, George backs government proposals to end universal benefits brought in by the previous Government as being unaffordable and failing to target those in most need.
George Freeman (Mid Norfolk) (Con): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). I am conscious of the number of Members who want to speak tonight, so I shall try to be brief. I want to make three key points. First, we need to draw breath and remind ourselves why we are having to take these measures. Secondly, I want to draw the House's attention to some of what I believe to be the flawed thinking underlying the measures that we are withdrawing. Thirdly, I shall touch on the lack of support for them from a number of independent commentators whom one might have expected to be more vocal.
We heard a lot from Opposition Members earlier, accusing us in somewhat hysterical tones-it is nice that they have now calmed down a little-of unwarranted glee at cutting back from the most vulnerable in society. Those accusations almost reached the point of suggesting that that was what we had come into politics for, which is the most appalling and, frankly, shameful accusation, and one that they do not need to nod their heads at now.
It is worth reminding the House, and those listening in the Gallery, why the coalition is having to take these measures. It gives us no pleasure at all, but the truth is that we have inherited from Labour an historic crisis in our public finances. We have a debt of £700 billion, and debt interest would be set to rise to £67 billion a year if we had not set about tackling it, which these measures are part of. Our current debt interest payments are £120 million a day. Opposition Members need to bear all that in mind before they accuse the coalition of irresponsible measures. The irresponsibility is illustrated by the deficit that they bequeathed to us and to the future generations that we are all trying to help.
Without a plan to tackle the deficit, there would be a real risk that confidence in this country's public finances would collapse, that international markets would lose confidence in our gilts, and that interest rates would start to rise. That would trigger the real catastrophe that we are trying to avoid. Everyone knows that we have to tackle the deficit. Surely no serious commentator, and no serious politician on the Opposition Benches, would suggest otherwise. It is simply disingenuous and mischievous to claim to be a serious party of government and then to scream foul when a responsible Government take the important measures to deal with the legacy that it has left us.
The flawed thinking behind some of the payments that the Bill covers can be seen as philosophical, economic and practical. First, as a number of speakers have highlighted, the measures do not target the poorest in society; they do not, in fact, do anything to tackle the really deep and challenging poverty traps into which many people fell through the complex layers of tax credits that the former Prime Minister insisted on imposing. They do nothing to undermine the dependency on the state, which all progressives in this House now seek to try to unravel. Anyone reading the work of Professor Giddens-new Labour's philosopher-king-would understand that that is not an accident. In his seminal book-I commend it to Labour Members who have not read it-he sets about defining modern citizenship as a dependency on the state. It should be no surprise to us that the last Government took every opportunity they could to increase dependency on the state. Those of us in the coalition who want to release citizens from dependency would take issue with that philosophy.
Economically, there has been some flawed thinking. At a time when Labour Members were building up historic debt to £700 billion, some of my constituents might well have considered it something of a gimmick to set about giving back small amounts of money that the beneficiaries will not receive for 18 years in some form of apparent largesse when what people were really going to inherit was a historic deficit and all that went with it.
I defer to my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) in respect of his earlier comments on the inefficiencies in management. I noticed in the Library briefing that management fees were running at £700 million, so it is odd to hear Labour Members defending putting money into the pockets of fund managers.
Finally, let me deal with the lack of support for these measures from independent commentators, whom we might have expected to be more vocal. When I went to the Library to find out what responses there had been to these cuts, I found two examples to which I would like to draw the House's attention. Barbardo's, commenting on the child poverty figures, said:
The report of the Child Poverty Action Group-other Members have mentioned it-provides another example. Its briefing of 2005 pointed out that the child trust fund would not benefit children until they were 18, stating:
On the grounds of the nature of the deficit we have to deal with, the flawed thinking behind the policy and the lack of support for it, it seems to me that, far from being an hysterical over-reaction, these measures are perfectly reasonable and sensible, particularly in the light of the coalition's commitment, set out in the Budget and the comprehensive spending review last week, to the retention of Sure Start, the introduction of the £7 billion pupil premium, the targeting of child benefit at the most needy families and tax credits. Some Members have already referred to them.
Alison McGovern: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
George Freeman: I am just wrapping up.
Also important is the Institute for Fiscal Studies' analysis, showing the Budget measures will not increase child poverty. Far from being irresponsible, I suggest to the House and to people more widely, that these are regrettable, but responsible, measures from a Government who take seriously their responsibilities to tackle the deficit left by the previous Government.