Mr Deputy Speaker, you and I have been here for a couple of decades, and I have never known a second-day debate on an autumn statement to involve only one Government Back Bencher. The emptiness of the Chamber reflects that we are at the fag end of this Government, and people realise that. The seriousness of the Government’s intentions in the coming months almost warrants despair among their own supporters, as well as in this House.
I sat through the Chancellor’s statement yesterday, and he set the scene of an economy that has turned the corner and is looking for technology-fuelled sunny uplands. I have been here a while and have listened to previous autumn statements, so I can recognise a pre-election speech when I see one, and that is what it was.
The Prime Minister basically set out the Conservatives’ election strategy the day before, and it is not a novel playbook—it is one they have used consistently. It is the same old Tory strategy. First, there are tax cuts as a pre-election bribe, then it goes on to the scapegoating of some vulnerable group, before making ludicrous claims about Labour’s plans to try to petrify people into not voting for change. Even with the media that we have, I do not think that strategy is going to work this time.
On economic growth, the Chancellor’s image of the economy turning a corner was absolutely shattered when the OBR report was published as soon as he sat down. It massively downgraded the growth forecast for every year of the forecast period. I listened to him talk on the radio this morning about how his investment in the economy will increase GDP by 0.5% over the coming four years. According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, 0.5% produces about £7 billion of income tax returns to the Government, so there is no way this growth will somehow provide the resources we need to fund our public services.
I doubt any amount of tax cutting will restore confidence in a party that has doubled our debt, brought our public services to their knees and crashed our economy with the madcap escapades of the last two Prime Ministers. The cuts to national insurance were the headline proposal in yesterday’s autumn statement, but in the cold light of day, less than 24 hours later, the analysis shows that all the benefit has been swept away by the continuing freeze on tax thresholds. The IPPR analysis demonstrates that even the national insurance cuts will benefit the highest earners and the richest, and then the energy cap was lifted this morning. There is no way these tax cuts will restore a feelgood factor among the general public.
The most nauseating element of yesterday’s appalling announcement was the scapegoating of the sick, the disabled and those with mental health problems. It is gutter politics. The Conservatives first tried to scapegoat asylum seekers, but that has not worked because, actually, people recognise that asylum seekers are coming to this country from war zones across the world, and they empathise with them. So the Government have now turned on the disabled, the sick and people struggling with their mental health. Hidden in yesterday’s autumn statement is the reality that the Government are cutting £1.2 billion from benefits paid to people with disabilities. As my hon. Friend the Member for Streatham (Bell Ribeiro-Addy) said, it heralds the return of the nasty party.
I met the Public and Commercial Services Union last week, and the chronic staffing crisis in the Department for Work and Pensions means that the implementation of last year’s sanctions policy is floundering because of the massive casework backlogs. Individual members of DWP staff have case loads of 2,000 cases, and obviously the system is collapsing. Loading more work on those workers will intensify the delays and will result—let us be honest—in more stress for the disabled, the sick and those with mental health problems.
Exactly as is predicted by a number of disability organisations, I fear this will push people over the edge. Those of us who were in the House remember what happened when the work capability assessment was first introduced. People were pushed so far over the edge that we saw a rise in the number of people taking their own life.
The Government have ludicrously claimed that Labour’s plan to borrow to invest in greening our economy will somehow push up interest rates and borrowing costs. That is a bit rich coming from the Conservative party, under which the country’s debt has risen. Let me be clear that Labour’s plan to borrow to invest will generate green growth in the economy. It is not like what the Tories have done in the past, which is to borrow for day-to-day expenditure—in other words, borrowing to cover the costs of failure.
The cost of borrowing £28 billion, even at the current high interest rates, is just above £1 billion, which is readily recouped—that is what investment is all about—as a result of the multiplier effect of this investment and the increased tax income it will generate. The comments of even senior Ministers have been inane in the extreme and lower the level of debate on the future of our economy.
I thought the real question yesterday was whether the Chancellor would do the right thing with the additional headroom that the OBR found as a result of inflation, interest rates and rising tax receipts, and where that additional money would go. Last week, I went to a concert by the brilliant Liverpool singer Jamie Webster. He sang a song called “Voice of the Voiceless”. Yesterday’s autumn statement made it clear to me that, as the Chancellor decided where to spend the new money that had been found, the voices of those most in need of those additional resources went unheard. I therefore think Members have a responsibility to be the voice of the voiceless in this debate.
I think we should be the voice of children. According to the Child Poverty Action Group, over 4 million children are currently living in poverty in the United Kingdom, the sixth richest country in the world. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation has found that more than 1 million children are living in and experiencing destitution. Last week, I met people from Buttle UK, the charity supporting children in poverty, and they explained what destitution means. It means children going without the basic essentials needed to eat, stay warm and dry, and keep clean. That is why so many charities, religious groups, trade unions and others have called for a Government—any Government—to prioritise children in poverty for support. One straightforward suggestion is to lift the two-child limit, which would immediately lift 250,000 children out of poverty. This is why so many are campaigning for free school meals, to ensure that our children get at least one decent meal a day. It is also why many of us have called on the Chancellor to restore the £20 that the Government cut from universal credit after the pandemic.
We need to be the voice of disabled people, the sick and the mentally ill, who were under attack yesterday. The new onslaught against disabled people and the sick clearly provided evidence that their voices have been ignored again. If the Government were listening, they would have heard how those receiving benefits have already had to fight their way through a brutal benefits system to secure the help they have gained. The Government would have heard about many of the experiences with the work capability assessment, which has caused so much human suffering and harm—so much so that, as Members may recall, we discovered that the DWP was secretly monitoring coroners’ reports on the suicide of people on benefits. David Cameron has just been reappointed, so I hope he points this out in government now. I remember when a person whose benefits had been cut starved to death in his constituency. The coroner’s report related that to the withdrawal of benefits.
Disability groups are rightly predicting that, as sure as night follows day, this new round of dangerous threats to the benefits of the sick and the disabled, and especially those with mental health problems, will cause serious harm again.
A wonderful piece of work was undertaken about the role the media and politicians played in stigmatising disabled people. This resulted, exactly as the hon. Gentleman said, in people not coming forward to claim their benefits. It also resulted in their ostracisation in their own community and the hardship that that caused, not only to them, but to their children when they went to school—this stuff is all coming back.
The irony has been pointed out by Members from across the House: wherever someone can work, we want to encourage them to do so and give them all the support they need, but people are being targeted with threats when we have 7.9 million people on the NHS waiting list—these are the very people who are waiting for the treatment to enable them to get back to work. This approach is particularly illogical and brutal. I urge hon. Members to look at the figures: 4 million people are already looking for additional hours of work in our economy, and unemployment has increased by a quarter of a million since the last autumn statement. These people will be struggling to compete for work that does not exist.
I want to be the voice of carers as well. I chair an unpaid carers group; we come together regularly and we have published our manifesto. There are 5 million unpaid carers in our community who are looking after their relatives and living off a miserly carer’s allowance of just under £80 a week. As a result, many of them live in poverty and hardship. The last estimate, in the Carers UK survey, was that they save the country some £160 billion a year. That survey also demonstrated just how many of them are struggling to make ends meet. We did not hear a single word yesterday about these heroes and heroines; there was not a single measure in the autumn statement that will move forward their simple demand for a level of financial support that will lift them out of poverty.
We should also be the voice of the homeless. We now have 105,000 families in our community living in temporary accommodation. Some 131,000 children are being brought up without a secure roof over their heads, often in overcrowded and run-down accommodation—all of us have seen these places, some of which are dangerous to live in. Putting the local housing allowance back to the 30th decile, after freezing it for years and after it having been at the 50th decile only a few years ago, goes nowhere near to giving those families any hope of securing a decent and secure home. What we really need now, as an emergency measure, are rent controls. We also want a massive council house building programme, but what was offered yesterday, in the detail, was funding for 2,400 council homes, at a time when we need hundreds of thousands.
As others have said, we also need to be the voice for public services. The fact that there is no additional funding for them and instead a projected £19 billion cut confirmed that the voices of the nurses, doctors, paramedics, social care workers, teachers, council workers and council leaders themselves went completely unheard. As we have said, there is to be a £4 billion funding cut, which means the erosion of some of the basic services people rely on in order to have some form of quality of life.
To conclude, there is a lot of speculation that the autumn statement presages an early election, and I think it probably does. I pray that it does, because my community cannot take this any more. I have never witnessed such a level of disillusionment with politics, such a lack of hope that things can get better. It is not just generating anger; what worries me more is that it is generating absolute apathy among our communities. There is a great responsibility on our shoulders now to restore that hope and to do so soon. I urge the Government: bring on the election, let the people have their voice, and let us have it as soon as possible.