On Tuesday Emily spoke out in Parliament against the government's economic plans which are hitting the poorest in Islington, while Tory cuts to HMRC mean that billions of pounds of tax is not being collected.
Read my speech below:
Emily Thornberry (Islington South and Finsbury) (Lab):
The autumn statement showed that this Government’s handling of the economy has been a profound failure. It shows what happens when a Government do not have any plan for jobs and growth. If they do not have a plan for jobs and growth, they come back after two and a half years and say, “Actually, we need another five years,” and if they still do not have a plan for jobs and growth, they will come back after another two and a half years and again say they need another five years, and so it will go on, because borrowing is up and debt is up and economic growth is down. The Government have wasted two and a half years. People simply do not buy it any more. The Business Secretary said that the Government’s credibility hinges on whether or not they eliminate the deficit. After the autumn statement it is clear that the credibility of this Government, supported by the Liberal Democrats, is in tatters.
I want to talk about the poor, because my poor constituents believe they are being punished for the failure of this Government and their reckless welfare reform. I also want to talk about the rich and how they are being let off the hook—again, that is because of the Government’s failure to make sure we collect all the tax we are owed. Why did the Government, when they first came into office, cut the number of tax inspectors by 7,000? The ambition was to cut the number of tax inspectors to an all-time low of 56,100. I remember that I wrote to the Chancellor in November 2010 saying that that would be counter-productive. When the Government are cutting the staff who prevent tax avoidance and evasion, how can my constituents believe that tackling it is a priority? Indeed, in answer to a parliamentary question, the Government admitted that every new tax inspector brings an additional £600,000 a year into the Exchequer.
The Exchequer Secretary to the Treasury (Mr David Gauke) indicated dissent .
Emily Thornberry: The Economic Secretary shakes his head, but I am just quoting what was said in the Government’s answer to a parliamentary question. He is welcome to intervene if he wishes to correct me.
Mr Gauke: As the hon. Lady has invited me to make this point, I will do so. If someone looks at the number of people working for Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs in enforcement and compliance—not the other areas; there are a lot of processing jobs—they find that under the previous Government’s plans it fell by 9,000, whereas under this Government’s plans it will increase by 2,500.
Emily Thornberry: The fact is that 7,000 jobs have gone under this Government’s plans, and the gap between what we collect and what we are owed is estimated to be £35 billion, which is twice the housing benefit bill. Independent research commissioned by the Public and Commercial Services Union reckoned that the real figure was more like £120 billion, which is six and a half times the housing benefit bill. Whatever the true sum, the fact is that without a sufficient number of tax inspectors we cannot ensure that the rules apply to everyone. Everyone should pay tax; it should not just be for the little people. Paying one’s taxes should not be some sort of charitable gesture, and I have little understanding as to why it was seen as appropriate for this Government to continue to cut back on tax inspectors. If we are to have rules, they need to be applied.
The Exchequer Secretary says that there were many processing jobs, but presumably people in that job need to make sure that the sums add up, that everything has been claimed that should have been claimed and that everything has been paid that should have been paid. Without that essential processing we will never know whether or not tax avoidance has been taking place—this is not just about major companies; it happens throughout the system. At a time like this, we need to make sure that everyone plays by the rules. If everyone does that and if the rules apply to us all and we have a fair society, we have the very one nation that Labour Members have been talking about.
Of course, the rules also apply to those who claim benefits and of course if someone can work, they must work. That is what unites this whole House. What does not unite this House is the language used by Government Front Benchers—the language of “scroungers”. Such language is simply offensive, as the highly eloquent maiden speech by my new hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough (Andy McDonald) so well set out. Such language is a smokescreen that covers up a great deal of what this Government are actually doing. Although they talk about scroungers and those who stay in bed, keep the curtains closed and do not go out to work—the remarks are highly offensive—they do not address the issue, which is that many, many people who are out of work want to work, but the fact of the matter is that people cannot go from welfare into work if the work is not there.
Furthermore, many of the changes that this Government are making and announced in the autumn statement will affect those very people who work. I want to go on to address the issue of not just those who are poor and not working, but that of those who are working in my constituency and are dependent on benefits. Sometimes I feel as though I live in a different world where Government Members believe that only those who are out of work claim benefits. In fact, many people who work depend on benefits. Surely that is a conundrum. Many people meet me on the street and say, “How can the welfare benefit bill be going up if a million additional people have got work?” The truth is self-evident. Many people who are now working work part-time or are self-employed rely on housing benefit and tax credits, the very things that the Minister will be cutting as a result of the autumn statement. Let us use the terms that he uses, such as the strivers. Those very strivers are having their support system cut away by this Government. Even in the hon. Gentleman’s offensive terms, that cannot be justified.
I want to talk specifically about housing benefit because the issue affects my constituents particularly. I hear Government Members say, “Why should it be that people on average earnings receive less than people on benefits?” That has a certain ring to it and I know that the Conservatives are out of touch, but surely some of them must know someone who rents a flat and who understands that housing benefit goes not to the tenant, but to the landlord. It is because rents have gone up so much in London and the south-east that the housing benefit bill continues to rise. In the past two years, private rents in London have gone up by 25%, according to London Councils. In those circumstances, how can it be justified to attack housing benefit, to put an arbitrary cap on housing benefit, or to believe that housing benefit should be the same level in London as it is anywhere else in the country? How can that be fair?
It is not the fault of my poor constituents that their rent is high. It is the fault of my Government and of Conservative Governments who did not build enough housing. There was a time when Conservative and Labour Governments used to compete with each other as to how much affordable housing they could build. In the 1970s, four fifths of the housing budget was spent on building new homes and one fifth on housing benefit. Now it is completely turned on its head and we continue to pay the price of failure. We must build more housing and we must not simply dance on a pin, analysing what affordable housing means.
The Minister represents a party that defines affordable housing as costing 80% of market rent. He and his party should get some sort of George Orwellian prize for double-speak. Eighty per cent. of market rent in my constituency could not be afforded by ordinary people in my constituency. I went on to the Rightmove website this morning and looked at the prices of three-bedroom flats in my constituency. Does the hon. Gentleman know how much the rent for a bog-standard three-bedroom flat in my constituency would be? Four hundred pounds a week. How much is the housing benefit cap? Three hundred and forty pounds a week. There was only one flat on Rightmove that was under the amount of the cap so how can people in my constituency, who will be subjected to the housing benefit cap, afford to continue to live in Islington?
There is an argument that the poor should not be living in Islington, but I respectfully disagree. My constituency should be a mixed constituency and should have rich and poor. Generations of poor people who live in my constituency should be allowed to continue to live there. Furthermore, the housing benefit cap is one atrocious measure that this Government have introduced, but we wait for the next, which is universal credit. There will be a cap of £500 a week for a four-bedroom flat in my constituency. There were 69 that were under the £400 current housing benefit.