The debate has roamed over more than just the fiscal rule and the welfare cap, and I will not tread on those other parts of the debate. My right hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton South East (Mr McFadden) demonstrated the economic and political farce of the current Government. The right hon. Member for Wokingham (John Redwood) made much of the role of Bank of England debt, which would be interesting to pursue in another debate, and the hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) pertinently drew attention to the iniquitous nature of the welfare cap. The hon. Member for North East Bedfordshire (Richard Fuller) made an interesting contribution, but his definition of Parliament’s role as being to protect property is something of a 17th-century view of democracy that we might want to debate elsewhere.
In our debates during the banking crash there was a popular understanding that the cause of the crash was the way in which the system had operated as a result of the finance sector’s greed and incompetence, alongside the mismanagement of financial regulation over decades. The Conservative party made a big argument at the time and subsequently that we were in a weaker position because of our deficit at the time of the crash. That is a feeble argument, but there is some substance to it, and I argued at the time that the reason for the deficit was that we did not have an adequate taxation policy to match our overall expenditure.
That argument is for another time, but I say to the hon. Member for North East Bedfordshire that I remember George Osborne ripping into Gordon Brown and others when even the concept of a fiscal rule was raised. George Osborne then ripped into the ludicrousness of a fiscal rule that no one would ever abide by and that had no sanctions. When he was appointed Chancellor in 2010 under the coalition and proposed the fiscal rule process, some of us thought it was ripe to say the least.
However, the most iniquitous bit of that debate was the combination of introducing the individual benefits cap and the overall welfare cap. The individual benefits cap is egregious, and it has forced people into poverty and hardship. In many of our areas, it has affected people’s mental health in a way that has pushed many over the edge and some into taking their own life—that is the tragedy of that element of the cap.
The overall welfare cap is part of that political direction. The point has been made time and again that austerity was a political choice, not an economic necessity. Part of that political choice was the introduction of the cap. After austerity was introduced, people woke up to the fact that public services were being cut on a scale we had not seen before. This was impacting on the health service, education and local council expenditure, and in addition to that, there were pay freezes and in the end, because of inflation, pay cuts. There was an understandable reaction against that. I can remember the deep unpopularity of the coalition Government in those early stages.
I think that a cynical decision was made; in fact, I know that a cynical decision was made because Lord Freud, who was responsible for welfare policy and supposed welfare reform, has exposed in recent months that a cynical decision was made. It was not made on the basis of welfare reform or economic management; its purpose was to find a scapegoat. The scapegoat that was unfortunately chosen by the then coalition Government was the poorest in our society: the unemployed, the people with disabilities and, tragically, children as well. I remember the language that was used, and I have to say that it permeated many sides of this House too. Strivers were set against skivers. I remember the tales of the twitching curtain, where some would stay in bed while others went to work. That certainly did not reflect what was happening in my constituency, because everyone I came up against was desperate for a job, and more importantly, they were desperate for a job that paid a wage that would keep a roof over their head and put food on the table for their children.
That is where the welfare cap came in. Of all the expenditure, that was the area that had to be capped in some form. Other areas of expenditure that were equally demand-led were not debated. This was done specifically because a scapegoat had to be found, and we went back almost to the attitudes of the poor law and the workhouse. I remember those debates. I was offended by them, I was made angry by them, but above all else I was shamed by them and by the fact that this House could stoop to that level. That is what happened, and people suffered as a result.
This welfare cap, associated with the fiscal rule, is a base anachronism that should no longer exist. For as long as it exists, as we go through a period where the economic pressures will impact on any Government—the cost of living crisis is easy to say as a phrase, but there is a reality to it and it is already causing hardship in many of our constituencies—I fear that this Government will want to find another scapegoat, and that it will be the poor again. It will be the disabled. It will be those who cannot find a job or cannot get enough hours in a job to keep them out of poverty. The Government will use the same mechanisms, and the welfare cap will be part of them as long as it remains in statutory form. That is why I will be voting against the welfare cap tonight. In principle, this is an appalling piece of legislation. It has proved to be inhumane in its impact, and it is a weapon that will be picked up again to attack the working-class people that I represent. That is why I want to put on record tonight why I oppose it and will continue to oppose it until we have hopefully secured a Government that will throw out this abysmal piece of political weaponry against working-class people.