“This rancid Bill is not about affordability; it reeks of the politics of dividing lines. But the enemy within is not the unemployed; the enemy within is unemployment. It is hard to stomach a Government who take absolutely no responsibility for their mistakes. It is intolerable to blame the unemployed for their poverty and our deficit.” David Miliband.
Did everybody have fun watching the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions bluster and fumble his way through the debate on the Benefit Uprating Bill yesterday?
I hope so, because that was all the joy to be had from it. We all knew the Coalition was going to win the vote; rumours of a Liberal Democrat rebellion failed to solidify (as usual – I’m ashamed that my own MP, Roger Williams (LD, Brecon and Radnorshire) voted to impoverish his constituents like the meek Tory poodle he has become).
But the Coalition lost the argument, and that is important.
It’s important that this government is seen to be unreasonable. It’s important that its plans can be shown to be not just harmful, but disastrous to those who are being led to believe they are protected. It’s important that Iain Duncan Smith, in particular, is revealed to be spouting falsehoods.
And he was. I was very pleased that opposition MPs were able to debunk his comments in the course of the debate, so all I have to do now is jot down the main headings and quote them verbatim. Here are some of the falsehoods and inconsistencies I found:
On Tax Credits:
“Under the Labour Government, tax credits absolutely boomed,” said Smith. “In 2005, there were increases of 58%. Overall, there were 340% increases in tax credits, 70% of which goes to child tax credits.”
We already know the increase in tax credits by 2005 was just eight per cent, which casts doubt over everything else the Secretary of Disgrace had to say. But let’s see what Dame Anne Begg had to tell us about tax credits.
She said: “Tax credits were a huge success. They increased the income of workers on low wages and made work pay. For the first time in at least two generations, the poverty trap was ended — I thought that it had gone for ever. There was a genuine poverty trap created by the previous, Conservative, Government and to all intents and purposes tax credits got rid of that. Almost everybody was better off as a result of tax credits unless they lived in a high accommodation cost area such as London or they had a large number of children. Work paid.”
“Unemployment is falling, youth unemployment is falling, more women are in work than ever… and long-term unemployment is flattening out,” said the Insidious Dole Snatcher. “The reality, therefore, is that we have better employment figures — there are 1 million new private sector jobs, which outweighs the public sector jobs we have had to get rid of. The reality is that the rate of unemployment, at 7.8 per cent, is better than the EU average and better, almost for the first time, than the United States of America.
Then Clive Efford came along: “The argument coming from the Government benches is wholly founded on misinformation, particularly in respect of the claim that the Government have created 1 million jobs in the private sector… According to the Office for National Statistics, 196,000 of those jobs are due solely to the reclassification of sixth-form colleges and further education colleges.”
Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Liam Byrne, agreed: “Sometimes things are not all that they seem to be.”
On Employment and Support Allowance:
“Let me remind [Mr Byrne] and the Labour party that they introduced the changes to the work capability assessment and ESA. The Government inherited, modified and improved those measures,” said Mr Smith, whose department is considered to be responsible for the deaths of, on average, 73 people every week as a result of those so-called improvements.
Did everybody notice the way Mr Smith slipped in the change in status of Employment and Support Allowance for people who are in the work-related activity group. It’s now no longer considered a disability benefit. He said: “People who are described in the terms of the Bill as qualified under the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 and are not in the support group will find that they will be affected by the one per cent increase. Therefore, by and large, the benefits for those who are disabled and qualified as disabled, and for those in receipt either of support payments in ESA, disability living allowance or the premiums in many other benefits, are being uprated in line with inflation… The only benefit that is not being uprated in line with inflation is ESA for those in the work-related activity group. Some of those with disability will be affected because many in their households will be on other benefits. That is the reason.”
I refer you to this response from Fiona O’Donnell: “Disability Rights UK… has said that 1 million disabled people will be affected by the one per cent uprating, and that more disabled people will be living in poverty.”
On welfare spending:
“Under Labour, public spending spiralled out of control… Labour spent taxpayers’ money like drunks on a Friday night, with no care or concern for how effective it was. Our record on getting people into jobs is better than theirs.”
Mr Byrne responded: “No doubt he, like me, will have looked at the DWP benefit expenditure tables, which show that spending on out-of-work benefits between 1996-97 and 2009-10 did not rise, but fell by £7.5 billion.
“That is why Lord Freud said that Labour’s record in getting people back to work was ‘remarkable’ and noted that Labour had tackled the long-term dependency on unemployment benefits that it had inherited from the Tories in 1997.”
On benefit fraud:
“Labour’s system was riddled with fraud and error. HMRC had to write off £4 billion in fraud and error payments and will probably have to write off another £4 billion, so £8 billion has been lost. This Bill is about finding savings of £1.9 billion, but as a result of tax credits Labour lost probably nearly £8 billion. That is the record of the last Government.”
Except, said David Miliband: “The Government’s own figures about the level of fraud show it to be 0.7 per cent.”
On the forthcoming Universal Credit:
“Under universal credit, a typical one-earner couple who have two children and rent their home will be £61 better off — including the changes today. A one-earner family with an income of £20,000 and two children will see a net gain of at least £34 a week.”
Mr Byrne responded: “Figures from the Institute for Fiscal Studies show that all the measures announced in the Autumn Statement, including those in the Bill, will mean a single-earner family with children on average will be £534 worse off by 2015.”
Before I move on to the biggest lie, the one that was repeated time and time again in the Chamber of the House of Commons, despite having been disproved already, let’s spare a moment for Robert Halfon, Conservative Member for Harlow. He raised the point that the Coalition government has been increasing the personal tax allowance, meaning it is possible for people to earn more money before having to pay tax. It’s important that we consider this, is it was used as a reason to justify the lower-than-inflation benefit rises being put forward in the Bill.
He inquired: “Is not cutting taxes on lower earners the best way to help those on low earnings, rather than recycling their hard-earned money through the benefits system?”
Mr Byrne put him right with the facts of the matter: “The personal allowance does not compensate for the whack that has been delivered to most working families in this country. The House of Commons Library says they will be £280 a year poorer by next year and the Institute for Fiscal Studies says they will be £534 poorer by 2015-16.”
We should also spare a moment for Gavin Williamson (Con, South Staffordshire), who claimed: “(Labour) left the legacy of welfare dependency that has corroded so much of our society. The simple reality is that the last Labour Government should have dealt with the issue of welfare reform when they had the opportunity to do so, between 1997 and 2010.”
In fact, there was no such legacy of welfare dependency. Lisa Nandy countered: “Research carried out recently by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation found that no such culture of worklessness existed, and that in fact there was a strong commitment to work among people throughout the country.”
Right – back to Iain Duncan Smith and the clanger that he and his party dropped time and time again. Let’s see how he framed it: “The reality is that in the period since the recession, payments for those in work have risen by about 10 per cent and payments for those on benefits have risen by about 20 per cent. We are trying to get a fair settlement back over the next few years.”
Let’s bear in mind that we all know – don’t we? – that the relationship between benefits and average wages has remained fairly stable over this period, the former being around 1/6 of the latter. The argument is, therefore, nonsense. That didn’t stop it being repeated by other Conservatives, such as:
Gareth Johnson (Con, Dartford): “The nub of the whole argument is that if we allow benefits to be increased by more than salaries, that will increase the number of people on benefits who are trapped in poverty and unable to afford to go to work.”
Kwasi Kwarteng (Con): “Is it right that people on out-of-work benefits should be receiving faster and greater increases in their income than people on very low wages? Is that fair?”
Alun Cairns (Con): “It is difficult to believe that out-of-work benefits have increased by 20 per cent since 2007 and that earnings have increased by half that amount. What is the incentive to work? [Referring to Hywel Williams (Lab)] Given what the Hon. Gentleman has said, is he comfortable that welfare payments are rising at twice the rate of earnings?”
In response, I give you the following:
From Caroline Lucas (Green): “The Secretary of State brandishes the figure of a 20 per cent increase in benefits in the past five years. In cash terms, Jobseeker’s Allowance has gone up from just £59.15 in 2007 to £71 in 2012. In other words, in each of those past years JSA has gone up by just £2.50. Is it not the truth that this is a mean and miserable piece of legislation from a mean and miserable Government?
From Sarah Teather (LD): “Whatever goalposts are used to measure the percentage change in benefit across time, it is clear that the monetary value of rising average wages is significantly more than that of benefits. Percentages do not buy milk, bread or school uniforms — pounds and pennies buy those things, and it is in pounds and pennies that people will experience a cut.”
From David Miliband (Lab): “If a couple on £5,500 a year or someone on £3,700 a year gets a one per cent increase, that is different from someone who is on £15,000, £20,000, £25,000, £30,000 or £35,000 getting the same increase, because although the people on £15,000, £25,000 or £30,000 are making tough choices, those on £5,000 or £3,700 are making a choice between feeding their kids and heating their home.”
From Ian Mearns (Lab): “The Bill is shrouded in smoke and mirrors. The Chancellor’s choice of start date to illustrate the rise of out-of-work benefits is 2007, but if we take a longer period, for instance beginning in 1979, we can see that benefits have risen significantly less than wages.”
And from Hywel Williams (Plaid Cymru), who finally lost patience with it: “This point has been done to death this afternoon. It says a lot about the quality of the Hon. Gentleman’s argument that he repeats it continually. I do not think I will bother with it any further.”
Smoke and mirrors; made-up statistics; outright lies – the legacy of Iain Duncan Smith. His reputation will never recover. I’ll leave the last word on the subject to Mr Byrne:
“Once upon a time — back in 2004 and 2005 — when the Secretary of State was making speeches about poverty, he said that the way to judge the Conservative party was on how its policies worked for the poorest communities in the country.
“What many people will be asking after today’s debate is: what happened to that man?”
Follow me on Twitter: @MidWalesMike
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