I find the House of Commons a very depressing place at times. What should be a place of serious debate all to often, and especially at Prime Minister’s Questions, becomes a haven for willy waving and general macho nonsense. Having the weekly event immediately ahead of the Spending Review was a complete and utter waste of time, yesterday. I know I’m paraphrasing a lot, but questions from the Government benches went along the lines of “Aren’t the other lot a bunch of irresponsible gits who shouldn’t be trusted with the Commons tea fund and aren’t the people of Britain lucky that we’re here to clean up the mess they left behind?” Seriously, one Tory even quoted from Mao (espousing the virtue of thrift) to suggest that the Chinese Communist dictator supported coalition policy.
It’s not as if Labour were much better, their questions being of the “Aren’t you evil people about to ruin everyone’s lives?” standard. I never quite got why people thought Ed Miliband had done well on his debut last week – he spent the entire time banging on about Child Benefit being removed from higher earners rather than the poorest Labour are supposed to be protecting. They made a rubbish job of that in Government but you might have thought the New Generation might have gone back to its roots. This week he wasn’t much better. The best that could be said about his lacklustre performance is that he looked less like he was about to vomit than last week. It was almost like he set himself up for being batted away easily by Cameron. PMQs is a bear pit, but he really hasn’t got much of a clue about how to handle it. He’s actually quite painful to watch. It’s quite something when you can say that Iain Gray looks almost competent in comparison during his weekly sparring matches with Alex Salmond.
Having said that, there were some sensible questions: Lib Dems Duncan Hames on protecting poorer students and Annette Brooke on breast cancer and Labour’s Sandra Osborne on international aid and Stephen Twigg on the family of a murdered constituent. I just wish there were more of this kind of stuff.
Moving on to the Spending Review, there was even a bit of machismo about that. I guess Osborne had to tell the country that Labour had been angling for departmental cuts of 20%, which gives the lie to what they’ve been saying about opposing every single cut, but he didn’t have to look so smug about saying he’d delivered cuts of 19% and looked forward to Labour support in the voting lobbies. I would hate to think that cuts of this nature had been planned with the view to getting one over on the Labour Party, especially when the extra money has been taken from the welfare budget.
There was much comment on Twitter about how utterly miserable Nick Clegg and Danny Alexander looked. To be honest, none of the Government front bench looked happy. That would have been severely inappropriate.
I was pleased that I could see the hand of the Liberal Democrats in Osborne’s measures – it’s clear that our ministers have been speaking up on some of the most important issues, like capital spending. It’s great that the carbon capture programme is to be protected, something so vital to Longannet in Fife.
You can see that Mike Moore has stood up for Scotland given that the cut in our budget is a lot less than anticipated and comparatively less than in other areas. You can also see the use of having a Highland MP as Chief Secretary as the Highlands and Islands will get super fast broadband.funded by the Government. And there’s £250 million available for renewable energy projects which has to be good.
There are to be no additional restrictions on Child Benefit which you have to take as a big Lib Dem win. Paul Walter had the story a few days ago about how Nick Clegg had won the case not to cut it based on age but to make sure that the restriction was felt by those most able to pay.
Then there’s the freezing of the vital science budget – if we’re going to be expecting the private sector to provide decent quality jobs, then it’s vital for our economic growth that we provide it with a workforce with the correct skills for a hi-tech, science based industry. We can put that down to another Lib Dem win.
An extra £2 billion on social care is also welcome.
What’s really fantastic is that Equitable Life policyholders, who Labour had turned their backs on, are finally going to get justice to the tune of £1.5 billion. That’s another clear Lib Dem win.
Let’s not also forget that the Liberal Democrats won the argument on ensuring that there will be no decision on Trident this Parliament, and have also ensured that 900,000 are taken out of income tax.
There are some things about this Review that really worry me, though:
The fact that a family will have to work at least 24 hours between them to qualify for Working Tax Credit. Imagine a family where one parent loses their job and the other works 16 hours behind the bar in the local pub. At the moment, they’ll get Working Tax Credit. Now, the working parent is going to either find another job, or persuade the boss to give them another 8 hours. They might be lucky if they worked for the local supermarket rather than the local pub, but for some families this is going to cause huge problems, penalising the people who are actually working.
The cut in social housing combined with a huge hike in rents for new tenants and limitations on tenancies in England is quite scary. Yes, that’s supposed to raise the money for much needed new affordable homes, but if people have to pay £400 other than £250, then if they’re on housing benefit, that’s an extra £15 a week they’ll have to find for rent on top of the £10 from the Emergency Budget in June. I’m not aware of any families on housing benefit where they have an extra £25 per week. That is clearly for new tenants and won’t apply to those already in Council housing but I’m not sure that’s been thought through properly.
The restriction of Employment and Support Allowance to those in the group who’s deemed able to work to a year is also going to cause significant hardship. You’ve got a group of people who are already disadvantaged, through no fault of their own, in the labour market, you’re going to chuck a whole load of public sector workers ahead of them in the queue for employment, so making it even harder for them to find work, and you’re going to take money off them too. That makes my eyes water. They need a tailor made individual plan to help them find work, not a withdrawal of support after a year.
While all this is going on, rich pensioners will still get £250 a year in Winter Fuel Allowance and free bus passes. Why on earth did they not restrict these to 65 year old non disabled people, or even those on basic rate tax? Why does David Cameron get to keep his promise on this, while Nick Clegg doesn’t get to keep his on university tuition?
This is by no means an exhaustive list of my thoughts on the Spending Review – but, as the zoo beckons, it’s all I have time for right now.
For the future, though, our ministers are going to have to keep a real eye on the impact of these measures particularly on the poor. We’ve been speaking up for those who Labour let down and we must continue to do so. If the economy doesn’t grow and there are no jobs for people, then too many people will face terrible hardship. We can’t allow that to happen on our watch.