Yesterday I took part in an opposition debate on living standards. My speech is available below but you can also watch it online.
Gavin Barwell (Croydon Central, Conservative):
Beneath the narrow partisanship and complete lack of penitence over Labour’s record in government lies a profound point in this motion about the challenge for public policy in our time: how do we improve the standard of living for people in low-paid work? This Government have done an awful lot to end the obscenity of people out of work being better off than people in work, but there is much more to do to ensure that being in a low-paid job actually pays for people. We on this side of the House should not allow our anger at the hypocrisy of those on the Opposition Benches to cloud the fact that there is a real problem.
Ian Mearns (Gateshead, Labour):
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I would like to make a bit of progress first.
I want to talk about two things: how the problem arose, and what we can do to solve it. I would argue that there are four causes of the problem. The first was the deficit built up under the last Government, which was partly the fault of the collapse in the banking system, but partly the fault of Labour for having a deficit before the recession started. Let me quote from something written by the Institute for Fiscal Studies before the last election:
“With government borrowing at its highest level since the Second World War…the key domestic policy issue for the next parliament will be how best to implement a combination of spending cuts and tax raising measures to return it, over the medium-term, to appropriate levels. This will be painful…families” will be made “directly worse off”.
That was the view of the IFS, no matter who was going to win the last election. That is the logical consequence of having the deficit, and voters understand that. I spent the summer knocking on more than 5,000 doors in Woodside and South Norwood in my constituency. The electorate understand that tough decisions have to be made.
The second cause is the international economic climate, which has led to lower than expected growth across the developed world. The third and fourth causes have nothing to do with Government: they are rising commodity prices and long-term changes in the labour market, which have led to a lower value being placed on low-skilled work. My hon. Friend the Member for West Worcestershire (Harriett Baldwin) referred to a quotation from the shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions identifying the problem back in 2004.
Ben Gummer (Ipswich, Conservative):
My hon. Friend said that the third reason, rising commodity prices, had nothing to do with Government. I would respectfully demur. One of the biggest pressures on families is energy prices, and the reason we have high energy prices in this country is because no one built anything in this country in the 13 years that Labour was in power.
There are certainly some commodity prices that Government can influence - my hon. Friend is quite right to pick me up on that—but there are others, such as the prices of basic foodstuffs, that are beyond national domestic control.
How do we solve the problem? I would like to suggest five possible solutions. The first is economic growth. It is not a solution on its own, because part of the deficit is structural.
The OECD forecast shows that our economy is projected to grow in quarter 3 by 0.9%, which is more than any other country in the G7 other than Canada, and in quarter 4 by 0.8%, which is the best projected rate in the G7. Unemployment in my constituency of Croydon Central is 6% lower today than it was when Labour left office, while youth unemployment—which the hon. Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy), who spoke before me, rightly spoke so passionately about—is nearly a quarter lower today than when Labour was in office.
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that there are significant variations around the country? I am afraid to say that youth unemployment in the north-east of England is now 25%. We have been accused of being hypocritical a number of times this afternoon, but although he spoke eloquently about the scourge of low pay in his opening remarks, he forgets entirely that his party opposed the implementation of the minimum wage when it was introduced by the last Labour Government.
The hon. Gentleman makes two excellent points. The regional variations in economic performance are a profound issue for public policy, and the Conservative party was wrong to oppose the national minimum wage, which is one of the things that the last Labour Government deserve credit for. The second solution I would suggest involves interest rates. At the moment we have record low interest rates. If we followed the economic policies of the shadow Chancellor, the cost of borrowing would go up, which would make an already difficult problem far worse and hit anyone with a mortgage extremely hard. The third thing we can do is look at public policy changes that Government can make to try to help people in low-paid work. One of the things about this Government that I am proudest of is the increase in the personal allowance. That sounds rather technical, but what it means is how much you can earn—not you, Madam Deputy Speaker, but how much anybody can earn—before the Government start taking money away in tax. When we came to power, the figure was £6,475; from next April, it will be £10,000.
That change has taken 2.7 million low-paid people out of income tax altogether and cut the income tax bill for someone on the minimum wage by a half. The shadow Chief Secretary talked about priorities. It is true that this Government have made a change to the tax rates for some of the wealthiest in our country, but if we want to talk about priorities, we have to say that the Treasury has spent 50 times more cutting tax rates for people in ordinary low-paid work than it has paid in reducing the top rate. That shows this Government’s priorities.
As other hon. Members have said, we have ensured that petrol duty is 13p a litre cheaper today than it would have been if we had followed Labour’s policies. We have cancelled the beer duty escalator. We have helped local councils across the country to keep council tax bills down. We have a scheme that we will introduce for tax-free child care, which will help with the cost of child care for people with children under the age of 12. We are ensuring that energy customers are placed on the lowest tariff. We have introduced the triple lock for the state pension, to ensure that we never again have the national scandal of our pensioners being given a derisory pension increase each year. We are also introducing the Help to Buy scheme, to try to help my constituents who want to own a home of their own and take that vital first step to get on the housing ladder, so there is much that this Government are doing.
There is also the crucial issue of wages. I have talked about the national minimum wage already, and there were some interesting reports in the media recently about the Government perhaps looking at what they can do on the minimum wage. As a Conservative, I would worry very much about a uniform increase, which might price some people out of the labour market. However, there is a case for asking whether larger companies or those that are making healthy profits should not be paying their staff more, because at the moment we are subsidising some employers to pay low wages, through the tax credit system that the previous Government introduced. I very much hope that the Government will look at how we tackle the issue of quality of life for people on low pay from both ends, by raising the personal allowance, so that we do not tax them so much, but also seeing whether we can ensure that they are paid a fair wage for the hard work they do.
One Opposition Member who talked about this issue implied that it was just Labour councils that are passionate about a living wage. My local authority, Conservative-controlled Croydon council, pays all its staff the London living wage, while the Mayor of London has guaranteed that that will apply to all staff working for the Greater London authority as well.
That is a big issue, particularly in London and the south-east, where pay costs are highest.
I also want to raise with my right hon. Friend the Financial Secretary to the Treasury, who gave an incredibly thoughtful speech, the issue of public sector pay. We have been quite right to restrict increases in public sector pay, because high increases would simply have meant more joblessness, but there is a limit to how long that policy can be continued. I hope that as wages increase in the wider economy, those who work in the public sector are not left out of that process.
Finally, if we want a high-wage economy, the long-term solution is to ensure that we have people with high skills who can command high wages in our globalised labour market. That is why I am so proud to work as the Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Secretary of State for Education, whose work, building on what the former Prime Minister and Lord Adonis achieved, is transforming standards of education in our country. Ultimately, if young people in Croydon Central want to command high wages in our economy, they need the qualifications and skills that will enable them to secure those jobs. We should not pretend that there is not a problem, but the Government are doing much to deal with it, and I hope they will do more still.