Mark Reckless (Rochester and Strood) (Con): We have to make these cuts because the expenditure has been unmanaged. As my hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich (Ben Gummer) says, for the first time there will be more within the supposed “annually managed” category than the amount that is subject to departmental expenditure limits. The measure that the Chancellor has brought before us today will mean that for the first time this £120 billion of public spending will be properly managed annually by the Treasury and will be subject annually to a vote of this House.
Imagine the Home Office or the Department for Transport letting it slip out that it was spending £1.5 billion more than previously planned. The first thing a Minister must do if a budget is exceeded is bear down on it, find out why, do something about it, and, if necessary, find another area of the departmental budget where savings can be made. If absolutely necessary, they must go to
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the Chancellor and see whether they can make a case for a proportion of the strictly limited contingency reserve.
Mr Mark Harper (Forest of Dean) (Con): I listened carefully to what the hon. Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) said and at no point during her speech did she think about the other side of the coin: the people who have to pay the bills. They were the people referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) and the Chancellor. They have needs and requirements. Many low-paid people have to pay the bills, but she never mentioned them once.
Mark Reckless: As we learnt in the Budget, the amount we will spend on benefits for the disabled—as the Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions, my right hon. Friend the Member for Wirral West (Esther McVey), will know well—is £1.5 billion more than was estimated in the autumn statement just three and a half months ago. In the past, we would have just ignored that and borrowed the extra money without even debating it in this House, but at least now we must have a debate.
The OBR expects that that money will be clawed back over the next couple of years—we will spend a similar amount extra next year, but not the following year. If that estimate is not right, however, surely we as MPs, representing the taxpayer and those who benefit from other benefits and from the NHS, must look into that and ask what we can do about it. Many people who are applying for the personal independence payment or employment and support allowance come to my surgeries and I see cases to which I am sympathetic and in which I think a misjudgement has been made in the assessment. The OBR might be right about what the spending will be—I am not saying that we should reduce eligibility for those benefits or that that is where the reductions must fall—but if it continues to increase we must either borrow the extra money, raise taxes, as the Opposition might wish, or find savings elsewhere.
Constituents of mine who, if they were lucky, were getting a 1% wage increase earlier in this Parliament were seeing people on benefits getting increases above 5%. In the five years since 2007, benefit payments increased by 10% relative to increases for those people who were in work. This year, for the first time, we have a 1% limit. Inflation has come down: it is now 1.7% rather than nearly 3%, as it was when we introduced this measure. I do not want to make further reductions to welfare benefits, but if payments to people who are disabled are £1.5 billion more than we thought they would be this year and if that continues to rise, we must make a decision about the priorities and where we want to make savings. Alternatively, should we just have more taxes and more borrowing, as the Opposition would like?
The other important principle of the measure before us is that the Chancellor is returning the control of spending to Parliament. Parliament used to debate the Government estimates in detail, but now the last thing that we debate on estimates day is anything to do with spending. Between the wars, Parliament lost that power
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and since then we have seen an explosion in state spending. We are spending £120 billion. It would be good news if spending came in below that, and the Treasury would not have to come to us for permission to spend more taxpayers’ money. But if spending is more than 2% above the projected figure there ought to be a debate and a vote in this House about whether to accept that.
George Freeman (Mid Norfolk) (Con): My hon. Friend is making an extremely elegant point. Is it not true that the Labour party’s positioning of itself as the welfare party has betrayed those who depend on the welfare system in two ways? First, it has meant that money required for those most in need is spent on those who are not most in need and, secondly, it has entrenched and locked hundreds of thousands of the most vulnerable families into dependency on welfare, which is the great tragedy of the welfare state that the Opposition have supported.
Mark Reckless: My hon. Friend is completely right. The Labour party used to be the workers’ party, but it has become the welfare party. It has become the defender of the public sector. When Parliament discussed these matters 90 years ago and before, the radicals were those who were trying to control Government spending and who were standing up for the taxpayers—the people in their constituencies—and trying to reduce the amount of money that Ministers were spending on their behalf. Today, all we see from the Labour party is a defence of welfare spending and of whatever is paid in the public sector while our constituents, who have to pay for all that and who are often on very low incomes, are ignored. For the first time, we are considering the comparison between what we are spending on welfare and what we need to do with that money elsewhere.
I wholeheartedly support this House’s having its say on spending. There is an excellent precedent for such a debate in Parliament. The Government came to the House with a motion saying that we should freeze spending within the European Union, but the House looked at the motion, decided that that was not good enough and that we wanted a cut. We voted for one, and the Government went out and delivered it. Parliament took control of spending.
Previously, spending in the welfare area covered by the £120 billion has gone up and up, and people have said, “Oh well, there is a problem and we will have to spend more on these disabled claimants, but we are sympathetic to them so that is fine. We will just borrow the extra money.” For the first time, we will be forced into making a decision about what we can do to get proper control of public spending, represent our constituents and stand up for the taxpayer. Not only has the Chancellor brought in the fiscal watchdog and reformed pensions, but, in this third area, he will be remembered for restoring control of spending to Parliament.