“Given that it will take some time between changing the law and implementing the actual recognition of marriage in the tax system, it is important that the Government makes this a priority, takes swift action. The change, or at least a recognition of it, should be made”.

I very much hope that that report can be taken seriously, that the Government can look further at the issue and perhaps bring it forward in future legislation.

Kate Green: I just want to ask the hon. Gentleman which report he is referring to and which think-tank?

Jim Shannon: The think-tank is ResPublica.

As the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr Leigh) said earlier, the tax burden on single people with no dependants on the same wage has been falling and far from being 50% above the OECD average, it is now actually below it. That is reflected in the fact that the tax burden on a one-earner married couple on an average wage with two children is projected to rise from 73% to 80% of that of a single person on the same wage by 2012-13, while the equivalent average burden among OECD nations is 52%.

In this context, it is strange that the Government have started investing what will probably end up being almost £12 billion on increasing individual allowances to £10,000. There is a cost factor there and an agreement within the coalition on how that is going to happen. That will cost us all. It is a measure that will have a disproportionately positive effect on single people, yet the Government will not have brought forward a much cheaper transferable allowance policy.

I do not believe that the current situation is sustainable. It is now urgent that the Government introduce legislation to give effect to the transferable allowance. I hope that the Minister will be able to provide robust assurances on this point and a commitment to ensure that as the tax burden increases in the context of the current financial difficulties, it is allocated in a way that is fair, sensitive to family responsibilities and recognises the real strengths that marriage brings to society. I also trust that the Minister will address the important points raised by other hon. Members, including the need urgently to address the IT implications of recognising marriage in the tax system. There are changes to be made, there are costs and a system will need to be set up.

I urge Members to support new clause 5. I believe it is worthy of support. I understand that there are differences of opinion. This is probably the first time that I have disagreed with many colleagues on the Opposition Benches, but I believe in my heart that this is an issue of some importance.

Dr William McCrea (South Antrim) (DUP): Does hon. Friend accept that no one here needs to apologise for believing that this nation was richly blessed whenever it honoured marriage in legislation?

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Jim Shannon: I thank my hon. Friend for putting the issue into perspective. We have no apologies to make; we believe in the sanctity of marriage; we believe it is important. Long may this House subscribe to that belief; we need to provide help and assistance to support marriage. We urge Members to support new clause 5.

Dan Rogerson: This has been a fascinating debate. It has been broad in its coverage of issues relating to marriage and social policy—although I must say that at times it has been as long as it has been broad—and it has strayed back into recent centuries in examining the institution of marriage. One common factor has emerged from it: Members in all parts of the House recognise the hugely beneficial effect of marriage on wider society in keeping families together and improving the quality of life, although some evidence presented by Members has raised questions about the quality of life during marriage.

9.30 pm

There is a legitimate debate to be had about how we, as a society, can support and encourage marriage. Where there has been a history of family breakdown, it provides a role model that can encourage people to invest time in building and strengthening relationships. I strongly believe that our education system could do more in that regard,. Sometimes such subjects are seen as a bit touchy-feely, and some of the supporters of the new clause might resist attempts to include them in the curriculum, but I think it important for us to do so.

Opposition Members have said that if the hon. Members for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) and for Gainsborough (Mr Leigh) are arguing that the new clause provides an incentive, it is a pretty weak one. That point was made three or four times by the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) during his considerable and weighty contribution. If the new clause is not about an incentive, I do not see how it can belong in a debate about the importance of valuing, encouraging and supporting marriage. There are other ways in which we could do that, and I hope that we will, both as a coalition Government and as a society.

As others have said, however, we also need to send all those who are building and fostering strong relationships, and raising children successfully, the message that they too are valued and valuable. The hon. Member for Gainsborough was at pains to emphasise that, but although I much enjoyed hearing what he had to say—he is a regular visitor to North Cornwall, and I always welcome him back so that he can spend his post-tax income there, just as I welcome the Prime Minister and many other Members—I was not convinced by it. As I said earlier, if the new clause provides a financial incentive it is clearly not a very big one, and if it does not, I do not really see what part it can play in a debate about the importance of supporting, encouraging and fostering marriage.

Andrew Selous (South West Bedfordshire) (Con): Does the hon. Gentleman not recognise that the transferability for which the new clause provides would enable parents, particularly women, to choose how they spend their time—to choose whether to work or to stay at home to look after children—and does he not think that providing that choice is a good idea?

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Dan Rogerson: The hon. Gentleman has raised a useful point. However, given the existing pressures on families I do not think that the new clause is sufficient to allow that to happen, although it may be a step in the right direction. The argument presented by, mainly, Members in a particular corner of the Chamber is that on one hand that this is about incentives and on the other hand that it would make a financial difference, and I think there is a weakness at the heart of that argument.

Members have produced evidence relating to what happened at the time of the change in the tax system. My own marriage took place in 1999 and was not related to tax considerations; I am pleased to say that other factors were operating. I suspect that, given the way in which tax has risen and fallen in every Budget, if such decisions were based on tax policy we would see a huge flux in the nature of relationships and marriage.

Mr Leigh: The hon. Gentleman is making a perfectly honourable speech and his party’s position is entirely consistent, but, as possibly the only Liberal Democrat speaking in the debate, will he confirm that, given the coalition agreement, he would be perfectly relaxed if our Government produced such a transferable allowance? Surely the Liberal Democrats could simply abstain.

Dan Rogerson: The hon. Gentleman knows that I am generally a relaxed person. We in Cornwall are famed for being laid back and not wanting the hectic pace of life that some other constituencies thrive on. I am focusing on the debate about the Government’s policy in the Bill and whether the Government will choose to accept the new clause that the hon. Gentleman proposed in such an able and distinguished manner. I hope that the Government will not at this juncture look to act on the proposal in the new clause.

I am happy to update the House that during the course of the debate news reached me that Julia Goldsworthy, the former Member for Falmouth and Camborne, has announced her engagement, which I am delighted to hear. Whether she and Chris have been watching the debate and decided that this was it is unclear. I think it is unlikely, but I am delighted that the institution of marriage is taking a step forward in terms of our political life in Cornwall.

Hon. Members’ speeches have made it clear that the new clause is an attempt to send a signal to a group of people in society, but I am not convinced that we should use the tax system to send a signal. There are other ways in which we could support marriage.

Mr Stewart Jackson: I concur that 1999 was a vintage year for nuptials, having been married myself that year. Surely there is a discrepancy in the hon. Gentleman’s argument. By increments, he is seeking to direct fiscal policy in terms of taking poorer people out of tax—it is his party’s policy, shared by many in my party, and it is in the coalition agreement. Surely he must recognise that there are perfectly good fiscal reasons for us to prevail on the Government to pursue the married tax allowance.

Dan Rogerson: There is certainly an important debate to be had, but it is not based on income or the tackling of poverty. It is a different argument, although of course an entirely legitimate one. It is just one that has failed to convince me at this juncture.

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In our long debate this evening we have explored the issues in some depth. Despite the excellent speech made by the hon. Member for Gainsborough, he has failed to convince me that the Government should act on his new clause.

Kate Green: This is an important debate and one that I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak in. The first thing to say is that it is important that we take great care with what the evidence tells us. That is in two respects.

Mr Stewart Jackson: The hon. Lady was not here earlier.

Kate Green: The hon. Gentleman is interrupting before I have even begun to expand on the evidence, but I shall be delighted to hear what evidence he has.

Mr Jackson: I merely had the temerity to point out that the hon. Lady did not grace us with her presence until about 20 minutes ago, so she was not in a position to hear the extremely articulate and well-made arguments made by my hon. Friend.

Kate Green: I am very sorry to have missed the contribution of the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr Leigh), but I should point out my own credentials—something that I do not often do. I bring to the House, if not exactly an interest, probably a bias. For four years I was proud to be the director of the National Council for One Parent Families. I worked with hon. Members, including Conservative Members, on what happens when relationships break down and children are involved. I know that I speak for hon. Members across the House when I say that our fundamental concern in this debate must be the well-being of children. I know that we come at that from different positions, but it is the debate that I think it is important we have this evening. The debate is not—however much hon. Members may, with the best of motives, care about it—about the social role of marriage and the societal messages that we send. I am interested in the well-being of children. It is incredibly important that we examine what we know about what marriage means for the well-being of children, what drives the factors that improve the well-being of children and the role of the financial position of families, and particularly of mothers, in the well-being of children.

I have had the pleasure of talking to hon. Members about this over many years, including Conservative Members. It is important for us as a House that we put it on record that this is what we really care about.

Andrew Selous: Will the hon. Lady give way?

Kate Green: I will with great pleasure give way to the hon. Gentleman, with whom I have had many important conversations on this point.

Andrew Selous: I acknowledge the hon. Lady’s considerable expertise, as I have been the beneficiary of some of it in the past. Does she agree that we should not set up a position of false opposition on this matter, and that many single parents are probably passionate supporters of marriage and might well like to get married again? We need to be a bit careful how we relate to this issue.

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Kate Green: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right, because the majority of people, including young people, want to be married. Most people who become lone parents never set out to do so; they did not enter into relationships expecting or wanting those relationships to break down. However, people often find themselves, at least for a time, bringing up children on their own. My point is that the well-being of children when that relationship breaks down must be a priority for this House. He probably feels as strongly as I do about that, and I hope that hon. Members will focus their attention on it when considering the new clause.

I want to say two things about the evidence that has been mentioned and debated by hon. Members this evening, the first of which relates to the cause and effect evidence. I perhaps raised this clumsily in earlier interventions, when I sought to point out that, to some degree at least, married couples are a bit of a self-selecting category. There is a preponderance of marriage among those who already had more financial and social resources before they married. Our policy should adjust to that where children who come from different social backgrounds may be disadvantaged, rather than seek to reinforce some of the societal disadvantages which mean that there is a prevalence of marriage among higher socio-economic groups.

Dr McCrea: As a minister, I have been marrying couples for the past 42 years and I do not know where the hon. Lady is getting her statistics from, as they certainly do not reflect the reality in the Province. She gives the idea that people who enter into marriage are at the upper end of the financial stability scale, but the vast majority of people who have been married have been at the lower end of the scale or in between. The reality is certainly not what she is describing to the House tonight.

Kate Green: I cannot question the hon. Gentleman’s evidence about Northern Ireland, but I can say that the position across the United Kingdom as a whole is that a higher rate of marriage correlates with people in higher socio-economic groups. We were helpfully reminded by the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Dan Rogerson) of an important question, which relates to the second point about the evidence: even if we could do something to spread the advantages of marriage across wider society, would a tax break do this? I have seen and heard no evidence, either this evening or during the many years that I have studied this subject, to show that a tax break persuades people to get married or to stay married. In that sense, particularly in these constrained fiscal circumstances, it seems extraordinary to spend public money on a mechanism that has no evidence to prove that it works effectively. There are real issues to address in respect of what the evidence shows us. Saying that does not devalue, in any way, the importance of marriage; I merely say that when we spend money, we need to know what outcome we expect it to achieve.

Mr Burrowes: I, too, recognise the hon. Lady’s expertise. It is difficult in these debates to unite on what we are for. She opened her contribution by discussing children’s well-being, and surely she would agree that there is evidence to suggest a correlation between children’s well-being and marriage. This issue should not just be

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the preserve of the few and the privileged; it should be an issue of social justice and extending it to the poorest, who can benefit from incentives and support in relation to marriage. That is what we are about, so surely we should unite in this House on that issue.

9.45 pm

Kate Green: With the greatest of respect to the hon. Gentleman—I understand what he says—we do not know and we have no evidence to tell us that it is the fact of marriage that gives those children that advantage. That is where the evidence falls down, with the greatest of respect to the strongly held views of Conservative Members and of DUP Members, too. The evidence does not tell us that the fact and existence of a marital relationship, if we strip out all other social and economic factors, makes the difference for children. Commitment might be one important factor but there is another important factor: conflict. We know that conflict, in married relationships or outside them, is extremely damaging for children, so it is dangerous for us pick out one aspect of relationships or familial structures and to say that it makes or breaks children’s well-being. The evidence simply does not stack up to tell us that.

I said at the beginning of my speech that my concern was about the well-being of children in the context of the proposal to spend public money on supporting a particular kind of familial structure. I am concerned that we are diverting resources to families who are economically better off rather than to those who face the greatest risk of poverty.

The families who face the greatest risk of poverty today—hon. Members on both sides of the House agree on this point—are lone parent families. There are two possible policy responses to that, one of which is to try to stop those lone parent families becoming lone parent families. Saying that we should have fewer single parent families could be a policy response if we could see the mechanisms to achieve it and if we thought that it would genuinely work for children’s well-being. In the absence of evidence that this tax break or other mechanisms can compel families to stay together, we must also consider the second policy response mechanism, which is how to improve the economic prospects of children growing up in single parent families, particularly in light of the fact that one in four children in this country will spend some time in such a family. I suggest that if we are considering where the pressure of public resources need to be focused, protecting the best interests of those children, irrespective of the marital situation of their parents, ought to be our priority.

Mr Stewart Jackson: The hon. Lady is very generous in giving way, but surely she is avoiding one central fact. We alone in Europe have a tax system that is biased against families with caring responsibilities in which one member chooses to stay at home to look after the children. That is the central fact that she is avoiding.

Kate Green: The hon. Gentleman raises a number of important points. First, I have been struck this evening by the interventions by Government Members about the opportunity for couples to make a choice—particularly that which many of them would like to see, which is for one parent in the couple, often the mother, to take some time out of the workplace to stay at home and care for

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children. They seem willing to spend money on offering that choice to mothers in couple relationships and to spend more on offering it to mothers in married couple relationships, but not to offer it to single mothers. The economic pressure on single mothers to go out to work to support their children is being ratcheted up by this Government. If it is right for children to have a parent at home for a time, not necessarily just when the children are very young, it must be right irrespective of the marital status of the parents. Government Members must think about the child-focused approach to deploying resources. If we think it right that parents should have the choice to be at home with their children, all parents must have that choice, not just those in married relationships.

In response to the interesting and important point made by the hon. Member for Peterborough (Mr Jackson) about what goes on in other European countries, let me say that one of the distinguishing factors is that the experience of poverty among lone parent families in this country and the much lower experience of such poverty in other European countries shows that one can design a fiscal system so that lone parenthood need not be a determinant of poverty. It need not lead families and children into poverty. This is about the redistributive choices that we make in our fiscal system. When we have such pressure on the public finances, making a choice to spend money on favouring a group of families, many of whom are already economically advantaged, rather than focusing spending on those who are most economically disadvantaged is a strange priority, particularly given that we have no evidence of the efficacy of spending money on keeping people married as a route to keeping them out of economic disadvantage.

Mr Kevan Jones: My hon. Friend talks about international comparisons, but does she agree that there is also no evidence in European countries or anywhere else that having a tax system that encourages marriage leads to more stable marriages or more coherent family units?

Kate Green: It is very clear that putting the weight of expectation for supporting marriage on the fiscal system is a very unrealistic and unlikely way of providing adequate support for strong couple relationships. Of course everybody wants strong couple relationships to be sustained and of course it is right to use every instrument of public policy that we can—cost-effectively and in terms of outcome—to do so, but the evidence about what sustains strong couple relationships is not that we should give tax breaks to the already better-off, and particularly not to the already better-off who do not have children, if we are concerned about child well-being. The evidence about what sustains strong couple relationships is about a much broader landscape of social and emotional support. It is about early relationship and social education in schools and ensuring we have strong services to support families in the community, including the universally welcome Sure Start services and the very good-quality child care and play facilities that can be available to support parents in raising their children.

To isolate money and spend it in the fiscal system rather than direct our attention to what genuinely supports strong family relationships and children in whatever family structure they are growing up is in my view a

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misapplication of public funds, particularly at a time when those public funds are constrained. As hon. Members have pointed out, it is particularly strange to spend money on couples who have no children if we are concerned about child well-being, rather than to spend money in a way that specifically focuses on the well-being of kids. I am very concerned that the new clause would take money from those with higher levels of need and give it to many couples in lesser need. I accept that, as hon. Members on the Democratic Unionist Benches have said, some married couples are in low-income groups and in straitened circumstances, but in general we would be diverting resources to better-off families from lower-income families, and particularly from lower-income families with children.

Finally, let me address the issue of the couple penalty, about which we have heard a great deal and about which I am deeply sceptical. Let us start by remembering that there are economies of scale of living with another adult in one’s household. It does not cost twice as much for two adults to live in a household as it costs one. The couple penalty that has been much talked about by Conservative Members fails to identify that the material circumstances of children in lone-parent families are measurably worse than those of children in couple families. Whatever the intellectual and fiscal modelling might suggest about a financial couple penalty, the reality—the outcome—is that there is no such couple penalty. Indeed, the penalty works in quite the opposite way. To seek to extend the material advantage that couples enjoy at the expense of single parents seems to me a strange choice for a Government who are particularly concerned about social mobility and improving the prospects of the most disadvantaged children.

I hope that hon. Members will consider the new clause very carefully and the fact that it simply fails to achieve the laudable goals of Members on the Government Benches to improve the prospects of some of our most disadvantaged children. I hope that they will look instead at how best we can direct resources to support parents who are bringing up children on their own, usually through no choice or fault of their own. I hope that they will relieve what is often a burden from the parents who are often proud to take on that burden and who deserve to be rewarded for taking it on, as they are the parents who stay and make the commitment. Surely they are the parents to whom we should be giving extra financial support if there is extra financial support to be made available. I really do plead with Members on the Conservative Benches, and with DUP Members who I think are giving them some support this evening, to think again about the likely effect of such a new clause and about the children who would lose out. I am sure that their intentions are honourable, but I am afraid that the results will be anything but.

Mr Stewart Jackson: It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Lady, who always makes an intelligent, cogent and reasonable case, but she is completely wrong. I had not intended to trouble the scorers this evening, but it is important that we have a proper debate on new clause 5, that it is not rushed through, and that this is not treated as a procedural issue that the House can dismiss lightly. It goes to the kernel of what my hon. Friends and I believe in. We did not come into politics at any level—in

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my case, more than 20 years ago—to make people poorer, to embed disadvantage, or to have a tax system that favours some over others.

My party has a strong tradition of small “l” liberal and progressive social reform, from Disraeli onwards. One of the more depressing aspects of the debate is the straw men—or straw people, I should say—who have been set up, and the caricatures of the Conservative party that have been paraded before us.

Fiona O'Donnell (East Lothian) (Lab): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr Jackson: Not at the moment; I may do so later. If a reasonable person from any other European country stumbled into the Chamber tonight, they would wonder why we were debating the issue. It is an existential issue of what we believe as public servants—as politicians—about the institution of marriage. That is not to traduce or do down the massive contribution that those who are, for a variety of reasons, single parents make to their family. They love their children and care about their family, and they are a part of the community. However, it is incumbent on us to say what we think is right. I commend the courage and dedication of my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Mr Leigh), who is willing to be unfashionable sometimes and speak out on what he believes is right.

This is a totemic issue, because my party put it in its election manifesto. It recapitulated that point in the coalition agreement and has argued for this specific policy, so it is not one that we can lightly cast aside as irrelevant now that we are in a coalition in which there must be give and take. Many of us have always believed that it is vital to take poorer working people out of tax. We heard about a cornucopia of so-called Tory errors, going back to the minimum wage. Let me remind Opposition Members that the gap between the richest and poorest 10% widened under the Labour Government. A former very senior Government member professed that he was

“intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich”;

that is a fact. No one has a monopoly on care and compassion for people.

It cannot be wrong to look at examples in other European countries, see that their fiscal policy decisions work, and decide to look at a similar policy. I like, respect and trust the Exchequer Secretary to the Treasury; he is a decent man of his word. He will have heard the strength of views and the passion on the Conservative Benches. He will also have heard the filibustering by the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones), which reached a nadir when he effectively said in his final remarks that people were essentially too thick to fill in their tax forms. I know that filibustering is an art form, and he has perfected it, but that is gilding the lily and taking things to a ludicrous length. This is not a subject for knockabout politics; it is about real changes to support people.

Mr Burrowes: My hon. Friend makes a good and important case. Many people quite properly raise concerns about the gap between the rich and the poor growing over the years, but why do the same people not also raise concerns about the position of one-earner married couples on an average wage with two children? Their

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tax burden has increased over the years, too. Why are people not rising up and expressing concern about that discrimination, which will lead to real child poverty if we do not deal with it?

10 pm

Mr Jackson: My hon. Friend has a long tradition of concentrating on this issue in his professional work in family law before he came to the House, and he knows what he is talking about. He is right and astute in his observation. The proposal is about ameliorating unfairness, as well as having a progressive tax policy to reward what we think is right. The hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green), in her usual decorous way, skipped the key issue, which is that European countries are making such tax changes or have established them, and we have not. It is incumbent on her to make the case why they are all wrong and we are right.

Andrew Selous: Does my hon. Friend agree that in this case the United Kingdom is the odd country out? As he so powerfully said, we need to join the mainstream of Europe on this matter.

Mr Jackson: My hon. Friend makes an intelligent point, with which I wholeheartedly agree.

Reference was made earlier to the Centre for Social Justice report of May 2011. The hon. Member for North Durham, who is ambling along the Back Benches towards his place, did not refute the causal link and the difference between marriage and cohabitation and some of their negative socio-economic impacts.

Mr Kevan Jones: I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman was listening; I said nothing of the sort. I said that a possible reason for marriage break-up was poverty, but the link that he is making by suggesting that marriage break-down somehow leads to poverty is not the point that I was making at all.

Mr Jackson: The hon. Gentleman is trying the patience of the House. We will have a look at Hansard tomorrow to see what he said. He did not refute the details and facts that I put before the House in my interventions on him and others.

Mr Jones: I know the hon. Gentleman is not a good listener. He is drawing the conclusion that poverty, and things such as drug abuse among children of single parents and others, is a result of the fact that their parents are not married. What I said, and what is clear from the work of the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, is that the root cause is poverty, not whether people are married or not married.

Mr Jackson: My capacity to listen is in inverse proportion to the length of the hon. Gentleman’s peroration. Given that he spoke for an hour, at the end, like many others, I lost the will to live. I expect better of the hon. Gentleman because he has given some very informative speeches over the years. Sadly, that was not the case tonight. I am sure he is distressed at my observations.

The hon. Gentleman failed to take on board any of the comments that were made or the facts that were presented. A study by the Bristol Community Family Trust in December 2010 demonstrated that cohabiting

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couples accounted for 80% of family break-ups, whereas divorce accounted for only 20% of break-ups. He did not specifically seek to break the causal link that I was making. One in 11 married couples break up before their child is five, compared with one in three unmarried couples. None of us wants to see the dire social consequences of family breakdown. There is a consensus across this country about it, from the Prime Minister down.

Kate Green: Accepting at face value what the hon. Gentleman says—that cohabiting couples are more likely to separate than married couples—what evidence can he give us that a financial inducement would work to keep those cohabiting couples together?

Mr Jackson: I expected better of the hon. Lady, who is learned, intelligent and usually erudite, than rejigging the caricature, “Put a ring on your finger and get an extra 20 quid a week.” That has never been our argument. We seek to influence private behaviour with public policy, and I used the example of speeding fines and points on a licence as policies that are likely to influence future behaviour. As I said to the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Dan Rogerson), who is no longer in his place, the Liberal Democrats made a manifesto commitment, which we have accepted, to take more poorer working people out of tax. That commitment was made on the same basis. The point I keep coming back to, and which I repeat for the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston, is that the international comparators support my case and not hers.

Helen Goodman: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr Jackson: I will not give way for the time being.

We all wish to deal with the problem of family breakdown, and I genuinely believe that this would be an important pointer and signal that we are in line with other countries and cognisant of international comparators. The hon. Member for North Durham painted a picture of a wonderful land of milk and honey, a Valhalla, after 13 years of the Labour Government, but it is worth repeating that in 2007, under a Labour Administration, a UNICEF report on child well-being placed Britain bottom in a league table of 21 countries. Members should listen not only to me on that point but to Mr Justice Coleridge from the family division of the High Court, who in 2009 summarised the position thus:

“The breakdown of families in this country is on a scale, depth and breadth which few of us could have imagined even a decade ago… almost all of society’s ills can be traced directly to the collapse of family life… it is a never ending carnival of human misery.”

The Whips are imploring me to conclude my comments—I know it is not my aftershave—so I will do so, as I am always receptive to the admonitions of my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend East (James Duddridge). We have had an excellent debate and I believe that my hon. Friend the Exchequer Secretary has listened. This is an important point of principle for Members on this side of the House and for many others, including hon. Gentlemen and Ladies from Northern Ireland on the other side of the Chamber. It is a totemic issue, and this Conservative-led coalition Government must, and I believe will, deliver on this promise.

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Michael Connarty: In the contributions that I have heard via the live feed and in the Chamber, sadly there seem to have been moral overtones that echo speeches in a Victorian Parliament. If moral judgments are behind those arguments and people think that they this is a moral vote, I am quite sad about that. It might be a political strategy, however. Many political strategies were put forward by the Conservative leadership at the election, but hopefully they will not be reflected in the legislation put though this House. I hope that the contribution from the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Dan Rogerson) is more reflective of the coalition, which means that the Government will not do what the new clause proposes.

It is very important that people listening to this debate realise what the proposals are. After the advances that this country has made, in the recognition of civil partnerships, for example, this proposal is about spouses and spouses alone, not civil partners. It is attacking the progress that has been made, which is now being copied across Europe. It does not relate to people of the same gender in firm and committed relationships, which shows that it is not a forward movement at all. It is an attempt to throw out and make a moral judgment on the things that have been done by the joint agreement of this House to advance society’s value of firm and committed partnerships. That is what is important.

Andrew Gwynne: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Michael Connarty: Not yet.

It is not just a matter of putting a marriage partnership or a firm partnership ahead of any other. My hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) spoke strongly and has worked hard on single parenthood, but I happen to believe, in most cases but not all, that a partnership provides a much stronger place for children to grow up in than that provided by any single person—male or female—who has to go it alone. Therefore, our society has a lot of value when we can encourage partnerships.

We still have the oddest situation in Europe—and among many other countries outside Europe—because we do not recognise de facto partnerships. De facto partnerships are not civil marriages but agreements by people without either a civil or Church marriage to remain in a relationship and to commit to themselves and to any offspring.

My son lives in Australia, and he shared a de facto partnership for a number of years, recognising that if he or his partner had died their pension would have transferred to the other. In this country I have friends who, like me and my spouse, have been together for 41 years. They have had to get married because they might be coming to the end of their lives—not for a long time, I hope—and their pensions would have died with them.

That was a moral judgment which the previous Labour Government made, and it was shameful, because we should have had civil partnerships for all who wished to have them, and we should have recognised de facto partnerships as much as same-gender partnerships. That is how we should have looked at things, but we should not give cash incentives, as the new clause seeks. Indeed, that was the contradiction in the contribution from the

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hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), because he said that he was not about incentivising partnerships through finances and then spoke on behalf of the new clause—which would incentivise partnerships.

Mr Burrowes: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Michael Connarty: I have a call from my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne) first.

That is what is wrong with the new clause. It is about spouses, it is backward looking and moralistic and it will not help children at all. It is sad that one in five marriages breaks down and that civil partnerships break down, so we must encourage people through the way we finance them and help them to keep their relationships together, because finances as much as personal fall-outs break down relationships.

Andrew Gwynne: I agree wholeheartedly that families come in different shapes and sizes, and we need to respect and reflect that in public policy. Is not that why the previous Labour Government were absolutely right to target limited resources on tackling child poverty, irrespective of the child’s family background?

Michael Connarty: My hon. Friend has made that point before, and he puts it better than I could.

My mother, who now has sadly passed away, was soured by the Labour Government very early on when we took away the additional money for single parents. From then on, every time I went to her house on a Sunday, she would start by saying, “Welcome,” and then she would say, “You and your Tony Blair,” and for the rest of my visit berate me for what we had not got right. She was a great touchstone, however, because she saw that the defence of children and the future of children were important, not the rest.

The new clause is a backwards step, but I am hopeful that the Minister will not support it and that such legislation will never get through. It states that only marriage—not any other relationship—is good enough or as good as we would wish.

Mr Burrowes: The hon. Gentleman is experienced in European affairs, given his chairmanship of the European Scrutiny Committee and his general interest in European matters, so I have a question. Why do France, Germany and Italy all recognise marriage in the taxation system? Indeed, let us widen that question. Why do only 24% of OECD citizens live in countries that do not recognise marriage in the taxation system? Has he ever asked why our European neighbours recognise marriage but we do not?

Michael Connarty: People must ask those Governments, but many recognise de facto partnerships as well, and their recognition is based on not just the marriage to which the new clause refers with “spouses”. That is the point. This is about one small group that we in this country used to see as a backward thing. We have moved beyond that now, and it is time we put it behind us. Perhaps others will catch up with us soon enough when they realise that it is partnerships that matter, not specifically spouses in a formal marriage.

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10.15 pm

Mr Chope: In making a brief contribution to this very important debate, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Mr Leigh) on getting it going. It came as a bit of surprise when my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) did not speak to the new clause, but I am delighted that she subsequently joined the debate to speak in support of it.

I come at this subject on the basis that the Prime Minister supports exactly what I support: recognising marriage in the tax system. He promised that the Government would recognise marriage in the tax system after the general election, and this debate rightly puts the focus on how that commitment will be implemented. I hope that when the Minister responds, he will say exactly when that is going to happen. Over a year ago, on 2 June 2010, the Prime Minister said:

“I believe that we should bring forward proposals to recognise marriage in the tax system. Those in our happy coalition will have the right to abstain on them, I am happy to say, but I support marriage. We support so many other things in the tax system, including Christmas parties and parking bicycles at work, so why do we not recognise marriage?”—[Official Report, 2 June 2010; Vol. 510, c. 428.]

Those were excellent words from my right hon. Friend. Then, some three or four months later—

Mr Kevan Jones rose

Mr Chope: No, I am not going to allow anybody to interfere with the words of the Prime Minister.

On 5 October 2010, the Prime Minister said:

“I have always supported the idea of supporting marriage through the tax system, specifically supporting the idea of a transferable tax allowance. The idea of a transferable tax allowance is in the coalition agreement.”

That is where my hon. Friend’s new clause comes in, because it calls for just that. One is entitled to ask why, having had two Budgets since the general election, we still do not have proposals to implement that very important pledge.

Labour Members are misrepresenting this proposal as an attempt to build new privileges for those who are in a marital relationship, but, as has been brought out time and again during the debate, the question is what we are going to do to prevent those who are married from suffering disadvantage under the tax system. That is what we are trying to put right with the new clause.

Helen Goodman: Labour Members would be far more sympathetic to the case that the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues are making in saying that they do not have negative attitudes towards single-parent families if they had not voted for the Welfare Reform Bill, which requires lone parents to pay to get the services of the Child Support Agency.

Mr Chope: Speaking for myself, I do not have negative attitudes towards single-parent families, but I do feel that single-parent families should not be advantaged in the tax system as compared with married families. That is the problem that we have at the moment, and that is what we are trying to put right in the new clause.

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I am lucky in that my constituency is in an area described thus in a headline in last week’s local paper: “East Dorset is a place for love and marriage”. The article says:

“Married couples in East Dorset stick together. Latest…figures show that 65 per cent of marriages in the area last, well above the national average”,

with the seventh highest rate of marriage survival in the country. Even so, fewer than two out of three marriages survive, but that is a lot better than in many other parts of the country.

I am not suggesting that the tax system is causing marital breakdown, but I am saying that we should follow the very strong lead of our Prime Minister and put pressure on the coalition Government to implement their commitment to recognise marriage in the tax system.

John Glen (Salisbury) (Con): Is not the real issue the calibration of the compromise? Most new Government Back Benchers recognise that in a coalition there has to be compromise. At the same time as we see moves forward on the individual allowance for our Liberal Democrat colleagues, we need to see some progress along the lines that my hon. Friend is setting out. The key issue is that there appears to be an imbalance in the compromise.

Mr Chope: My hon. Friend makes a very good point. We are seeking a route towards a destination. The Prime Minister set out the clear destination, but so far we do not seem to have made any progress towards achieving it. What was set out in detail on the Conservative website at the time of the election was a very modest proposal, which talked about a small proportion of the tax allowance being transferable, with quite a tight maximum income threshold in order for people to be eligible. Even that modest proposal has not yet been put forward by the Government in the Finance Bill so that we can support it and implement it.

Mr Kevan Jones: The hon. Gentleman has talked about the Prime Minister’s support for this proposal. Does he recognise that the Prime Minister included civil partnerships in what he said? If we agreed to this proposal tonight, civil partnerships would be excluded, which is clearly at odds with what the Prime Minister wants.

Mr Chope: If there is a defect in the wording of the new clause and it fails to recognise everything that the Prime Minister said—he certainly referred specifically to civil partnerships—the hon. Gentleman may have a point about that, but he does not have a point about much else, in my submission.

Mr Leigh: I am happy to make the concession to the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Michael Connarty), who spoke at some length on this point, that if the new clause is defective, I am happy to withdraw it and for the Government to bring back a new clause that includes civil partnerships. I make it absolutely clear that we have nothing against civil partnerships.

Mr Chope: My final point is that there is a read-across between the new clause and the conundrum that the Government face in the debate about the withdrawal of

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child benefit from families that comprise at least one higher rate taxpayer. That issue is causing a lot of angst among our constituents, particularly for parents in single income households in which one parent stays at home to look after the children. As I have said in correspondence with the Minister, in some cases one parent stays at home to look after a disabled child. If there is one parent who is the breadwinner and he is a higher rate taxpayer on an income of about £45,000 or £50,000, he will be above the threshold and will be deprived of his child benefit.

Michael Connarty: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr Chope: I will give way in a minute.

In comparison, a household with two people earning between £35,000 and £40,000 each, which has a much higher income, will keep its child benefit. That is not fair. In response to correspondence, the Minister has said that there has to be a bit of rough justice and that to introduce a system of transferability of allowances and entitlements would be very complicated. However, that is exactly what was proposed by the Prime Minister with the transferability of tax allowances, and that is what is proposed in the new clause. That is of significance, because there is a read-across from this other thorny policy issue that faces the Government.

I hope that we will have a positive response from the Minister, and that he will spell out in detail when and how the Prime Minister’s pledges to the country will be implemented.

Chris Leslie: What on earth is going on with the Tories this evening? It is a perplexing situation, because Conservative Members usually accuse Labour Members of filibustering in an open-ended Finance Bill debate, but not at all this evening. Instead we seem to have a private family dispute breaking out.

Chris Ruane (Vale of Clwyd) (Lab): Divorce in the air.

Chris Leslie: There could be, who knows? We had the unedifying spectacle, at the beginning of the debate, of the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce), in whose name the new clause was tabled, not moving it, and the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr Leigh) swiftly getting to his feet and deciding to move it. Three hours later, here we are. I am not quite sure whether the hon. Member for Congleton had reached some sort of deal with the Whips—it did not look like a particularly friendly deal at the time, but maybe she had a concession from Ministers and they are going to announce, finally, some movement on their election pledges. It is all very strange behaviour.

As my hon. Friends have said, it is very peculiar, at a time when millions of families, pensioners and others are being hit hard by deep spending cuts and tax rises, that the first priority of so many Conservative Members is to advocate an unfair tax cut with no apparent benefit to society. It would be a multi-billion-pound marriage tax break that would penalise those who are separated, widowed or divorced, many of whom are already being hit hard by cuts to tax credits and child care.

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Mr Stewart Jackson: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Chris Leslie: Well, why not? More from the hon. Gentleman.

Mr Jackson: On the subject of unfairness, would the hon. Gentleman like to apologise for the fact that in the financial year 2007-08, under his party’s Government, the tax burden on one-earner married couples with two children, on the average wage, rose to 44% greater than the OECD average? That is a matter of fairness. Does he think any responsible party should ignore it?

Chris Leslie: I am not quite sure what the hon. Gentleman’s point is. Maybe in the cool light of day that intervention will have more light shed on it. In his contribution earlier, he asserted that there was a causal link between marriage and the socio-economic well-being of society, child well-being and so forth. He may well have a set of statistics in which he sees a correlation, but I am sure he understands the difference between causal and correlative effect. It may well be that car ownership has a similar correlation with child well-being, but that does not mean that setting up the tax system to the advantage of a particular institution will necessarily have the outcome that he seeks.

My hon. Friends the Members for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green), for North Durham (Mr Jones) and others have overwhelmingly proved that we need a tax and benefits system focused on need and on poverty alleviation, particularly poverty among children. That must be the driving force behind a sane and rational tax system. We do not want a system with the peculiarities and idiosyncrasies that Conservative Members advocate.

Mr Kevan Jones: Does my hon. Friend agree that one causal link might be with poverty? The hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope) says that couples in Dorset stay together longer, but might that not have a lot to do with the affluent nature of that part of the world compared with, say, inner-city Glasgow?

Chris Leslie: Absolutely. Of course that is the case. It is so obvious that it is surprising that Conservative Members cannot see it. What is worse is that the new clause that they have moved—or rather, that one of them has moved—would cost more than £4 billion. It would cost £4.1 billion to create a personal allowance transferable between all couples, married and unmarried. That would be the price tag of new clause 5. That is the equivalent of a penny on income tax, a penny on employee national insurance rates, a 1% increase in VAT or putting VAT on fuel and power, as we know the Government sometimes like to do. If Conservative Members advocate spending that amount of money, surely it would be better to target it on the basis of need and where it would have the best and most direct benefit to society.

There is a long history of the transferability of personal allowances, and I will not go through it.

Helen Goodman: Oh, go on!

Chris Leslie: I know that many of my hon. Friends would like to me to elucidate some of that history, but we have already been through various centuries in this evening’s debate. Suffice it to say that it was a Conservative

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Government who eventually phased out the married couple’s allowance, and indeed the current Lord Chancellor who said:

“Now that husbands and wives are taxed independently—one of the best taxation reforms in recent years—the married couple’s allowance is a bit of an anomaly.”—[Official Report, 30 November 1993; Vol. 233, c. 935.]

My hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston was absolutely right when she highlighted Labour’s policy shift towards helping the children and families in greatest need, particularly through the tax credit system. That was one of the greatest changes made by the previous Labour Government, and one that we should be proudest of.

10.30 pm

The Conservatives have made a number of manifesto commitments on the transferability of personal allowances: they made such a pledge as far back as their 2001 election manifesto, and the Work and Pensions Secretary reiterated it in Centre for Social Justice reports. It comes up again and again, even as recently as the most recent general election, when a similar, albeit smaller, measure was proposed.

The Liberal Democrats, however, have always been firmly against such a measure; at least, that appeared to be the case. Indeed, as my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham said, no less a person than the Deputy Prime Minister said that the proposal was

“a throwback to the Edwardian era”,


“Miriam and I got married for love, not for three quid a week. It’s patronising drivel.”

This is one of those rare occasions when I agree with the Deputy Prime Minister.

The hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope) highlighted child benefit and taxation for higher earners. The two issues are inextricably linked, because when challenged about his decision at the Conservative party conference, the Prime Minister said, “Oh well. Don’t worry. We’re going to be making moves on a transferable married couples allowance.” Of course we never saw such a proposal then, and we still do not know how the child benefit taxation arrangement will be implemented. That would be a major change to the independent taxation system.

Mr Chope: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Chris Leslie: This is the final intervention that I will take.

Mr Chope: I am sure that if the hon. Gentleman waits, he will hear a major announcement on that issue from the Minister very shortly.

Chris Leslie: The hon. Gentleman could have speeded that up by not intervening.

I shall finish by saying that, clearly, there are major problems with the transferable allowance. It is costly and not targeted, and it is unfair to those without a marriage certificate, whether they are divorced, widowed, single or in a couple. There are a host of anomalies and unintended consequences, as several of my hon. Friends have said. For instance, if a husband is killed in a tragic

28 Jun 2011 : Column 876

road accident, his widow and children will be left without support, and so on. The proposal undermines the principle of independent taxation, but most of all, we should focus our tax and benefits system on need and on the alleviation of poverty. I sincerely hope that the House will reject new clause 5.

The Exchequer Secretary to the Treasury (Mr David Gauke): As we have heard, new clause 5 would introduce transferable personal allowances for married couples, allowing one spouse in all married couples to transfer unused personal allowance to the other. I am very grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) for tabling the new clause. It highlights an important point: that marriage is a positive institution, and one that the Government are committed to support.

We are keen to send a clear message that family and marriage matters, and that strong and healthy families help to create a strong and healthy society. In little more than a year, this Government have proved our determination to tackle the wider issues that can affect family stability.

Fiona O'Donnell: What message would the measure send to the woman who came my surgery on Friday, fleeing an abusive relationship to keep herself and her children safe?

Mr Gauke: It is of course important that we, as a society, do everything that we can for a woman in the circumstances that the hon. Lady describes. However, the Government also believe that the institution of marriage provides something to society that should be recognised. That is the thinking behind our policy. Of course we must help those in abusive relationships and do all we can to support them, but that does not preclude taking steps to support the institution of marriage. The Government recognise that.

Thomas Docherty: Like the Minister, I am a fan of the institution of marriage, but what does it say about the institution that the Government feel that they need to support it like this?

Mr Gauke: If the hon. Gentleman is prepared to be patient, I will set out the Government’s position.

If we are to address poverty, it is important that we address not just poverty but the causes of poverty—to coin a phrase—and ensure that work pays, and that is what our welfare reform programme is designed to do. It is also important that we take steps to ensure that the family and marriage are recognised, and that we do what we can to support stable relationships.

Ian Austin (Dudley North) (Lab): Under the Minister’s proposals, if a man abandoned his wife and children and got remarried, would he continue to receive the tax allowance? If a woman were widowed, would she lose it?

Mr Gauke: Let me set out—[Hon. Members: “Ah!”] Let me set out the point. As has been said many times during this debate, marriage is recognised in the vast majority of countries. The previous Government introduced the transferable nil-rate band for inheritance, which was specifically designed to assist married couples and civil partnerships. If the Labour party is against any kind of recognition of marriage within the tax system—

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Ian Austin rose

Mr Gauke: Let me finish this point. If the Labour party is against any kind of recognition of marriage within the tax system, why did it introduce the transferable nil-rate band for inheritance tax?

Ian Austin rose

Mr Gauke: Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will explain. [Interruption.]

Ian Austin: Would a woman whose husband was killed in Afghanistan lose this benefit?

Mr Gauke: As I sat down to give way to the hon. Member for Dudley North (Ian Austin), the shadow Chancellor said, “You don’t have to be married to benefit from the transferable nil-rate band.” He is absolutely right. As I said, it applies to married couples and those in a civil partnership. That is exactly what I said earlier. As the hon. Member for Dudley North pointed out, it is important that we support widows in the circumstances he mentioned. Does that mean, though, that we should never do anything for married couples? It does not necessarily follow.

I want to put this in the wider context of what we are doing to help strong and stable families. For example, the Department for Education has announced plans to spend £30 million on relationship support to deliver better support for couples in relationship distress. However, as hon. Members will be aware, the Government have made it clear that we intend to introduce proposals to recognise marriage and civil partnerships in the tax system. As the Prime Minister said recently, this will show that as a country we value commitment. I certainly agree, therefore, with the intentions behind the new clause.

Although the Government support the principle behind the new clause, now is not the appropriate time to bring forward such a measure. It would entail significant and immediate costs to the Exchequer, its scope is wider than the Conservative party manifesto pledge and the cost, we estimate, would be more than £4 billion. It would also necessitate substantial implementation costs.

Clive Efford: Will the Minister give way?

Mr Gauke: I will give way again, but I am keen to make progress.

Clive Efford: Will the Minister comment on what message this sends to teachers planning to strike on Thursday? On the day when the Secretary of State for Education was dragged to the House to explain what he was doing to avoid the strike, the priority of Back-Bench Conservative MPs is to propose a motion that would cost more than £4 billion a year, yet teachers are being told that the Government will not negotiate over increases in their pension fund contributions. What message does that send to those teachers?

Mr Gauke: We have heard a lot in this debate about single parents. One group that will be affected if teachers go on strike and schools close on Thursday will be single working parents, who will face substantial disruption

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in dealing with child care. I hope that Members in all parts of the House will strongly urge teachers to go to work on Thursday.

Mr Leigh: I am quite prepared to accept that we are only Back Benchers and that the new clause may be defective, but I would be prepared not to force it to a vote if my hon. Friend now gives a firm and solemn pledge that during this Parliament the Government will honour our manifesto pledge to recognise marriage in the tax system. If my hon. Friend gives me that pledge, I will not force the new clause to a vote; if he does not give that pledge now, I will force it to a vote.

Mr Gauke: As always, my hon. Friend is very forceful in the points that he makes. Let me make a little progress; whether he considers it to be sufficient progress we shall wait and see.

Ian Lucas (Wrexham) (Lab) rose—

Mr Gauke: I am going to make some progress.

Clearly, £4 billion is a significant amount of money. Any decision to introduce a mechanism to recognise marriage in the tax system will need to be taken in the context of the wider public finances, so whatever proposals the Government make will balance the benefit to society with the cost to the Exchequer. We will consider a range of options.

There are also some issues with the drafting of new clause 5. Some seemingly minor elements, such as the lack of a commencement date, make the new clause administratively difficult for two reasons. First, lead-in times for an effectively implemented mechanism will be lengthy because HMRC will need to design and put in place new processes—a point that a number of hon. Members have recognised. We will factor that into our thinking. The Government and HMRC understand the need for a workable way of delivering this, and we are actively engaged in that process. Secondly, the lack of a commencement date means that those who qualify could, technically, claim for at least the last four years, which could substantially increase the cost.

As we have heard, the new clause also makes no mention of civil partnerships, which we believe must be included. There is much that HMRC will need to prepare before the Government are able to meet their commitment, but hon. Members can rest assured that the Government are considering all those points. Let me say to my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Mr Leigh) that the Government remain committed to exactly what we said in the coalition agreement. I support the principle behind the new clause.

Labour introduced a mechanism in the tax system to recognise the advantages of cycling to work, and although I have nothing against cycling to work, it seems to me that marriage is more important to society, so the idea that the proposal before us would somehow represent a strange or unusual element in the tax system is, I am afraid, wrong. However, it is not practical to implement it at this time, and such changes need to be made within the boundaries of improved fiscal stability. Therefore, although I will reluctantly ask my hon. Friend to withdraw new clause 5, I can assure my hon. Friends that this is not an issue that we have forgotten about; rather, it is a commitment that we will keep.

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Mr Leigh: I am afraid that the Minister has not answered the specific question that I asked him. It is not good enough to say that we will honour a commitment, but then give no date for when that commitment will be honoured. I am very sorry, but there is not a cigarette paper between what my hon. Friends and I are proposing in new clause 5 and what the Prime Minister said, which I shall repeat:

“I believe that we should bring forward proposals to recognise marriage in the tax system. Those in our happy coalition”—

notice that he mentioned the coalition, because this is about now, in this Parliament; he was not talking about some time in the future—

“will have the right to abstain on them, I am happy to say, but I support marriage. We support so many other things in the tax system, including Christmas parties and parking bicycles at work, so why do we not recognise marriage?”—[Official Report, 2 June 2010; Vol. 510, c. 428.]

10.45 pm

I repeat: why is politics held in such contempt? It is because politicians go to the people at general elections and promise things—

Ian Austin rose—

Mr Leigh: I am not going to give way, because the House wants to come to a decision on this.

The House is held in such contempt because we make pledges and then we do not carry them out. We made a solemn pledge before the election, and we repeated it after the election—

Ian Austin: Nonsense!

Mr Leigh: I will not be shouted down by the hon. Gentleman. He was not here for most of the debate anyway.

We made that pledge, and we should now respect it. I was hoping to be able to say that the new clause was defective, and that we would be quite happy to withdraw it and to redraft it to enable civil partnerships to be recognised. We would be quite happy if the Minister then said that it could be introduced during the course of this Parliament. However, he has not said that. I am afraid that he has not answered the points that we have put to him. We had an hour’s speech by the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones), most of which did not address what we are trying to say. I want to end by saying that none of us is trying to penalise two-earner families or single parents. We are simply trying to remove the severe penalty that this country imposes on one-earner families. The United Kingdom is completely out of step with most of the world in that regard. Nothing in our proposal is radical; it is sensible and it is right, and I think that we should now have a Division on it.

Question put, That the clause be read a Second time.

The House proceeded to a Division.

Mr Speaker: Order. Open the doors for a further minute, owing to the extreme congestion in one Division Lobby.

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The House having divided:

Ayes 23, Noes 473.

Division No. 307]

[10.46 pm


Bruce, Fiona

Campbell, Mr Gregory

Carswell, Mr Douglas

Chope, Mr Christopher

Davies, Philip

Dobbin, Jim

Dodds, rh Mr Nigel

Donaldson, rh Mr Jeffrey M.

Dorries, Nadine

Field, rh Mr Frank

Henderson, Gordon

Hoey, Kate

Leigh, Mr Edward

McCartney, Karl

McCrea, Dr William

Nuttall, Mr David

Offord, Mr Matthew

Paisley, Ian

Reckless, Mark

Shannon, Jim

Simpson, David

Turner, Mr Andrew

Vickers, Martin

Tellers for the Ayes:

Mr Peter Bone and

Mr Philip Hollobone


Abrahams, Debbie

Adams, Nigel

Afriyie, Adam

Ainsworth, rh Mr Bob

Aldous, Peter

Alexander, rh Mr Douglas

Alexander, Heidi

Ali, Rushanara

Anderson, Mr David

Andrew, Stuart

Arbuthnot, rh Mr James

Ashworth, Jon

Austin, Ian

Bacon, Mr Richard

Bailey, Mr Adrian

Bain, Mr William

Baker, Norman

Baker, Steve

Baldry, Tony

Baldwin, Harriett

Balls, rh Ed

Banks, Gordon

Barclay, Stephen

Baron, Mr John

Barron, rh Mr Kevin

Bayley, Hugh

Bebb, Guto

Beckett, rh Margaret

Begg, Dame Anne

Beith, rh Sir Alan

Benn, rh Hilary

Benton, Mr Joe

Beresford, Sir Paul

Berry, Jake

Betts, Mr Clive

Bingham, Andrew

Binley, Mr Brian

Birtwistle, Gordon

Blackman, Bob

Blackman-Woods, Roberta

Blears, rh Hazel

Blenkinsop, Tom

Blomfield, Paul

Blunkett, rh Mr David

Blunt, Mr Crispin

Boles, Nick

Bottomley, Sir Peter

Bradley, Karen

Bradshaw, rh Mr Ben

Brake, Tom

Bray, Angie

Brazier, Mr Julian

Brennan, Kevin

Brine, Mr Steve

Brokenshire, James

Brooke, Annette

Brown, Lyn

Brown, rh Mr Nicholas

Browne, Mr Jeremy

Bruce, rh Malcolm

Bryant, Chris

Buckland, Mr Robert

Burden, Richard

Burley, Mr Aidan

Burns, Conor

Burns, rh Mr Simon

Burstow, Paul

Byles, Dan

Byrne, rh Mr Liam

Cairns, Alun

Campbell, Mr Alan

Campbell, rh Sir Menzies

Carmichael, rh Mr Alistair

Carmichael, Neil

Caton, Martin

Chapman, Mrs Jenny

Chishti, Rehman

Clappison, Mr James

Clwyd, rh Ann

Coaker, Vernon

Coffey, Dr Thérèse

Collins, Damian

Colvile, Oliver

Connarty, Michael

Cooper, Rosie

Cooper, rh Yvette

Corbyn, Jeremy

Crausby, Mr David

Creagh, Mary

Creasy, Stella

Crockart, Mike

Crouch, Tracey

Cryer, John

Cunningham, Alex

Cunningham, Mr Jim

Cunningham, Tony

Dakin, Nic

Danczuk, Simon

Davey, Mr Edward

David, Mr Wayne

Davies, David T. C.


Davies, Geraint

Davies, Glyn

de Bois, Nick

Dinenage, Caroline

Djanogly, Mr Jonathan

Dobson, rh Frank

Docherty, Thomas

Donohoe, Mr Brian H.

Dorrell, rh Mr Stephen

Dowd, Jim

Doyle-Price, Jackie

Drax, Richard

Dromey, Jack

Duddridge, James

Dugher, Michael

Duncan, rh Mr Alan

Duncan Smith, rh Mr Iain

Dunne, Mr Philip

Durkan, Mark

Eagle, Ms Angela

Eagle, Maria

Edwards, Jonathan

Efford, Clive

Elliott, Julie

Ellis, Michael

Ellison, Jane

Ellman, Mrs Louise

Ellwood, Mr Tobias

Engel, Natascha

Esterson, Bill

Eustice, George

Evans, Chris

Evans, Graham

Evans, Jonathan

Evennett, Mr David

Fabricant, Michael

Fallon, Michael

Featherstone, Lynne

Field, Mr Mark

Fitzpatrick, Jim

Flello, Robert

Flynn, Paul

Foster, rh Mr Don

Fovargue, Yvonne

Fox, rh Dr Liam

Francis, Dr Hywel

Francois, rh Mr Mark

Freeman, George

Freer, Mike

Fullbrook, Lorraine

Fuller, Richard

Gardiner, Barry

Garnier, Mr Edward

Garnier, Mark

Gauke, Mr David

George, Andrew

Gibb, Mr Nick

Gilbert, Stephen

Glass, Pat

Glindon, Mrs Mary

Godsiff, Mr Roger

Goggins, rh Paul

Goldsmith, Zac

Goodman, Helen

Goodwill, Mr Robert

Graham, Richard

Grant, Mrs Helen

Gray, Mr James

Grayling, rh Chris

Green, Damian

Green, Kate

Greening, Justine

Greenwood, Lilian

Griffith, Nia

Griffiths, Andrew

Gummer, Ben

Gwynne, Andrew

Gyimah, Mr Sam

Hain, rh Mr Peter

Halfon, Robert

Hames, Duncan

Hamilton, Mr David

Hamilton, Fabian

Hammond, rh Mr Philip

Hammond, Stephen

Hancock, Matthew

Hancock, Mr Mike

Hands, Greg

Hanson, rh Mr David

Harper, Mr Mark

Harrington, Richard

Harris, Rebecca

Hart, Simon

Harvey, Nick

Haselhurst, rh Sir Alan

Havard, Mr Dai

Hayes, Mr John

Heald, Oliver

Healey, rh John

Heath, Mr David

Heaton-Harris, Chris

Hemming, John

Hendrick, Mark

Hendry, Charles

Herbert, rh Nick

Heyes, David

Hinds, Damian

Hoban, Mr Mark

Hodgson, Mrs Sharon

Hollingbery, George

Holloway, Mr Adam

Hopkins, Kelvin

Hopkins, Kris

Horwood, Martin

Hosie, Stewart

Howarth, rh Mr George

Howell, John

Hughes, rh Simon

Huhne, rh Chris

Hunter, Mark

Huppert, Dr Julian

Jackson, Glenda

James, Margot

James, Mrs Siân C.

Jarvis, Dan

Javid, Sajid

Johnson, Diana

Johnson, Gareth

Johnson, Joseph

Jones, Andrew

Jones, Mr David

Jones, Graham

Jones, Helen

Jones, Mr Kevan

Jones, Mr Marcus

Jones, Susan Elan

Jowell, rh Tessa

Kawczynski, Daniel

Kelly, Chris

Kendall, Liz

Kennedy, rh Mr Charles

Khan, rh Sadiq

Kirby, Simon

Knight, rh Mr Greg

Kwarteng, Kwasi

Laing, Mrs Eleanor

Lammy, rh Mr David

Lansley, rh Mr Andrew

Latham, Pauline

Lavery, Ian

Laws, rh Mr David

Lazarowicz, Mark

Leadsom, Andrea

Lee, Jessica

Lee, Dr Phillip

Leech, Mr John

Leslie, Charlotte

Leslie, Chris

Lewis, Brandon

Lewis, Dr Julian

Lilley, rh Mr Peter

Lloyd, Stephen

Lloyd, Tony

Lopresti, Jack

Lord, Jonathan

Loughton, Tim

Lucas, Caroline

Lucas, Ian

Luff, Peter

Lumley, Karen

Macleod, Mary

Mactaggart, Fiona

Mahmood, Shabana

Main, Mrs Anne

Mann, John

Marsden, Mr Gordon

Maude, rh Mr Francis

Maynard, Paul

McCabe, Steve

McCann, Mr Michael

McCarthy, Kerry

McCartney, Jason

McClymont, Gregg

McDonagh, Siobhain

McDonnell, John

McFadden, rh Mr Pat

McGovern, Alison

McGovern, Jim

McIntosh, Miss Anne

McKinnell, Catherine

McLoughlin, rh Mr Patrick

McPartland, Stephen

McVey, Esther

Meacher, rh Mr Michael

Meale, Sir Alan

Mensch, Mrs Louise

Menzies, Mark

Mercer, Patrick

Metcalfe, Stephen

Michael, rh Alun

Miliband, rh David

Miller, Andrew

Mills, Nigel

Milton, Anne

Moon, Mrs Madeleine

Moore, rh Michael

Mordaunt, Penny

Morden, Jessica

Morgan, Nicky

Morrice, Graeme


Morris, Anne Marie

Morris, David

Morris, Grahame M.


Morris, James

Mosley, Stephen

Mowat, David

Mudie, Mr George

Munn, Meg

Munt, Tessa

Murphy, rh Paul

Murray, Sheryll

Murrison, Dr Andrew

Nandy, Lisa

Nash, Pamela

Newmark, Mr Brooks

Newton, Sarah

Nokes, Caroline

Norman, Jesse

O'Brien, Mr Stephen

O'Donnell, Fiona

Ollerenshaw, Eric

Osborne, rh Mr George

Ottaway, Richard

Owen, Albert

Paice, rh Mr James

Parish, Neil

Pawsey, Mark

Pearce, Teresa

Penning, Mike

Penrose, John

Percy, Andrew

Perkins, Toby

Perry, Claire

Phillips, Stephen

Phillipson, Bridget

Pincher, Christopher

Poulter, Dr Daniel

Pound, Stephen

Prisk, Mr Mark

Pritchard, Mark

Pugh, John

Raab, Mr Dominic

Raynsford, rh Mr Nick

Redwood, rh Mr John

Reed, Mr Jamie

Rees-Mogg, Jacob

Reevell, Simon

Reeves, Rachel

Reid, Mr Alan

Reynolds, Jonathan

Riordan, Mrs Linda

Ritchie, Ms Margaret

Robathan, rh Mr Andrew

Robertson, Hugh

Robertson, John

Robertson, Mr Laurence

Robinson, Mr Geoffrey

Rogerson, Dan

Rosindell, Andrew

Rotheram, Steve

Roy, Lindsay

Ruane, Chris

Rudd, Amber

Ruffley, Mr David

Russell, Bob

Rutley, David

Sanders, Mr Adrian

Sandys, Laura

Scott, Mr Lee

Seabeck, Alison

Sharma, Alok

Sharma, Mr Virendra

Shelbrooke, Alec

Sheridan, Jim

Shuker, Gavin

Simpson, Mr Keith

Skidmore, Chris

Skinner, Mr Dennis

Slaughter, Mr Andy

Smith, rh Mr Andrew

Smith, Angela

Smith, Miss Chloe

Smith, Henry

Smith, Julian

Smith, Nick

Smith, Owen

Smith, Sir Robert

Soubry, Anna

Spellar, rh Mr John

Spencer, Mr Mark

Stephenson, Andrew

Stevenson, John

Stewart, Bob

Stewart, Iain

Stewart, Rory

Straw, rh Mr Jack

Stride, Mel

Stringer, Graham

Stuart, Ms Gisela

Stuart, Mr Graham

Sturdy, Julian

Sutcliffe, Mr Gerry

Swales, Ian

Swayne, Mr Desmond

Swinson, Jo

Swire, rh Mr Hugo

Syms, Mr Robert

Tami, Mark

Teather, Sarah

Thomas, Mr Gareth

Thornberry, Emily

Thurso, John

Timms, rh Stephen

Timpson, Mr Edward

Tomlinson, Justin

Tredinnick, David

Trickett, Jon

Truss, Elizabeth

Turner, Karl

Twigg, Stephen

Tyrie, Mr Andrew

Umunna, Mr Chuka

Uppal, Paul

Vara, Mr Shailesh

Vaz, Valerie

Villiers, rh Mrs Theresa

Walker, Mr Robin

Wallace, Mr Ben

Walley, Joan

Walter, Mr Robert

Ward, Mr David

Watkinson, Angela

Watson, Mr Tom

Watts, Mr Dave

Weatherley, Mike

Webb, Steve

Wharton, James

Wheeler, Heather

White, Chris

Whiteford, Dr Eilidh

Whitehead, Dr Alan

Whittaker, Craig

Wiggin, Bill

Williams, Hywel

Williams, Mr Mark

Williams, Roger

Williams, Stephen

Williamson, Chris

Willott, Jenny

Wilson, Phil

Wilson, Mr Rob

Winnick, Mr David

Winterton, rh Ms Rosie

Wollaston, Dr Sarah

Wood, Mike

Woodcock, John

Wright, David

Wright, Mr Iain

Wright, Jeremy

Wright, Simon

Young, rh Sir George

Zahawi, Nadhim

Tellers for the Noes:

Norman Lamb and

Stephen Crabb

Question accordingly negatived.

28 Jun 2011 : Column 881

28 Jun 2011 : Column 882

28 Jun 2011 : Column 883

Mr Bone: On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. A very unusual thing just occurred during the Division. I was one of the tellers. The doors were locked at the appropriate time, then unbelievably, they were unlocked again. Given the closeness of the result, do you think that the vote should be taken again?

Mr Speaker: I see no reason for it to be taken again, but I am strikingly impressed by the fact that, although it is three minutes past 11 o’clock, the sense of humour for which the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone) is renowned throughout the House has not deserted him. However, it is only fair to say that the Chair has discretion to allow the vote to continue for slightly longer in particular circumstances. A very large number of Members were seeking to get through one Lobby so I extended the time. I think we will leave it there, and I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for the manner in which he has raised his point of order.

28 Jun 2011 : Column 884

New Clause 6

Rate of value added tax

‘(1) In section 2(1) of the Value Added Tax Act 1994 (rate of VAT), for “20 per cent” substitute “17.5 per cent”.

(2) In section 21(4) of that Act (restriction on value of imported goods), for “25 per cent” substitute “28.58 per cent”.

(3) The amendment made by subsections (1) and (2) has effect in relation to any supply made on or after 30 August 2011 and any acquisition or importation taking place on or after that date.’.—(Jonathan Edwards.)

Brought up, and read the First time.

Jonathan Edwards (Carmarthen East and Dinefwr) (PC): I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

Mr Speaker: With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

New clause 9—Value Added Tax (Change of Rate) Order 2011—

‘(1) The Chancellor of the Exchequer shall make an order under the powers conferred by sections 2(2) and 21(7) of the Value Added Tax Act 1994 that in section 2(1) of the Value Added Tax Act 1994 (rate of VAT), the rate of tax charged by virtue of that section shall be decreased by 12.5 per cent.

(2) In section 21(4) (value of imported goods) of the Value Added Tax Act 1994 for “25” substitute “28.58”.

(3) This Order shall be known as The Value Added Tax (Change of Rate) Order 2011 and shall come into force on 30 August 2011.’.

New clause 10—VAT—

‘The Treasury shall, within three months of the passing of this Act, report to Parliament its assessment of the impact of the rate of VAT on UK economic growth.’.

Jonathan Edwards: Diolch yn fawr, Mr Speaker. I had an hour-long speech prepared for this debate, but as it is going well past my bedtime, I will try to keep my remarks as short as possible.

I move this new clause with a sense of déjà vu, as only last July I closed a Finance Bill debate on an amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Dundee East (Stewart Hosie) that aimed to overturn the decision in the emergency Budget to raise VAT to 20% from January this year. Many of the arguments I made then remain relevant, but I will resist the temptation to air the same speech twice. Interestingly, that debate [Interruption]

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Lindsay Hoyle): Order. Too many conversations are going on in the Chamber, and I am sure that everybody wants to hear the hon. Gentleman.

Jonathan Edwards: Thank you very much, Mr Deputy Speaker.

Interestingly, when the House divided on that amendments the Labour party abstained. Since then, it seems that the official Opposition’s main critique of the UK Government’s economic policy has been based on the Treasury’s VAT policy. I hope that when we divide later the Labour Front-Bench team will set aside its usual partisan approach to votes in this place and will walk through the Lobby with us. As I see the shadow Minister, the right hon. Member for Delyn (Mr Hanson), grinning, I hope that that will be the case.

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In the 2010 general election, Plaid Cymru campaigned against a VAT increase—unlike the Liberal Democrats, who had their tax bombshell poster, we meant it. That is why we tabled an amendment to prevent the increase last year and why we have done the same again this year. Last year, I said that there was both a social and economic reason why the increase in VAT was a bad idea, and I hope to concentrate on those reasons during my speech. We are against the ideological cuts and the rush to achieve a zero deficit within one parliamentary term with the net result of hundreds of thousands of lost jobs and unimaginable pain across our communities. We have consistently expressed our concern at the possibility of what the former Monetary Policy Committee member, David Blanchflower, called a “death spiral”, whereby cuts in expenditure become cuts in receipts.

A country’s economy is not like a family budget. Although it is good public relations, making misleading references of this sort is a very dangerous game for the UK Government to continue to play. In the case of the state there is a direct link between expenditure and income. Indeed, an overt reduction in expenditure can lead to a reduction in income and an increase in the deficit. Some would argue that we are in that situation already, even before the real cuts start to bite.

The state cannot cut its expenditure and assume that its income will remain constant. We are talking about intrinsic fine balances, which is why it always makes more sense for a state to change its expenditure levels modestly, rather than go cold turkey, as is favoured by the current Government. Four main elements drive economic growth: public sector expenditure; exports; private investment; and the key element as far as today’s debate on VAT is concerned, which is household spending.

VAT is, in essence, a tax on consumption. Economic growth in the Labour years was largely driven by consumer spending, resulting in a situation whereby personal debt levels in the UK have rocketed to an unsustainable 100% of gross value added, at £1.4 trillion.

Matthew Hancock (West Suffolk) (Con): I am listening to the hon. Gentleman’s argument. Given that cutting VAT appears to be the only economic policy of the Labour party, is he not surprised that the party tabled its amendment so late that it was not selected and that the leader of the Labour party did not sign up to its amendment?

Jonathan Edwards: The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point and I hope that the shadow Minister will be able to address it much better than I could.

Debt charities such as Citizens Advice report that the amount of debt problems dealt with by the service continues to increase, as the human cost of the recession feeds into the system. There is a long-term economic case for addressing this unsustainable situation by reducing the personal debt caused by consumption in the economy. My preference, however, would be to change the banking code and make it more difficult for lenders to seduce consumers into debts that they cannot service, rather than directly to reduce the purchasing powers of individuals via the use of VAT. I note that new clause 11 has been selected for debate and it covers associated matters.

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The major issue faced by the economy is a lack of demand. Personal household debt, built up during the last decade, will be a severe economic headwind facing the UK economy for the foreseeable future. The increase in VAT exacerbates the situation, as we can see today from the revised growth figures for the first three months of 2011, which show that consumer spending is falling at its fastest rate since the second quarter of 2009, a decline of 0.6%. Real household disposable income is 2.7% lower than it was last year, the biggest annual fall since 1977.

Growth in consumer spending will be key if the UK Government are to meet the economic growth forecasts they have set in order to achieve their fiscal consolidation targets. The January VAT increase will stymie the consumer-led growth on which the Government depend.

In the past, my party has argued against VAT being used as an economic stimulus, which was the aim of the previous Labour Government when they cut VAT by 2.5% in 2008-09. In our view, there were more effective ways of stimulating the economy, not least investing in capital infrastructure and putting proper money in people’s pockets and in their pay packets rather than just hoping that they would spend the small change from VAT. With the increase in standard VAT from 17.5% to 20% and the stagnating economic recovery from the recession, the circumstances have changed. This is no longer about merely keeping the tills ringing, but about keeping families in their homes.

Christopher Pincher (Tamworth) (Con): I have listened carefully and with interest to the hon. Gentleman’s new clause. Can he tell the House when he informed the shadow Cabinet that he was going to table this clause and whether he has had any advice on it from the shadow Chancellor?

Jonathan Edwards: The hon. Gentleman will be aware that I am in a different party from those on the shadow Front Bench and we do not normally negotiate on the clauses we table. I can only assume that my staff are more effective.

Richard Banks, the chief executive of UK Asset Resolution, said that the UK economy faced a tsunami of repossessions once interest rates rise. Increases will come sooner rather than later, partly as a result of the VAT increase. The increase in inflation has come about for a variety of international reasons, including the slow devaluation of the pound and increases in basic food and oil prices, but we have a 2.1% increase in prices across the board and I am sure that many businesses have racked up their prices by greater amounts. The increase in VAT is adding to the inflationary pressures on the economy and it therefore seems strange that the Treasury is using a fiscal measure that is playing its part in increasing inflation and will inevitably at some stage lead to a tightening of monetary policy, creating a further major headwind for the economy. It is the economic equivalent of shooting oneself in the foot.

John Hemming: I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on being more efficient than the official Opposition. However, he is proposing to reduce VAT in this financial year, which would mean an increase in the deficit and

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therefore an increase in the borrowing. Where would we borrow the money from and how much interest would we pay?

Jonathan Edwards: As the hon. Gentleman rightly says, I am proposing a temporary cut and I am endeavouring to convey that the priority of the Treasury should be securing sustained economic growth. In my view, the increase in VAT is hindering that. That is my key point.

Older people and pensioners who thought that they had enough to live comfortably for the rest of their lives now find themselves with very little interest but high inflationary costs in their everyday life. The Government’s attempts to save money by changing indexation from the retail prices index to the consumer prices index means that any benefits people receive are lower than the real world cost, rather than keeping up with it.

Families who are stretched by the costs of their daily living are dealing with wage freezes but finding that the cost of living is rising dramatically. Young families find it hard to save to buy a house, and others live in worry about the base rate increasing and being unable to cover their mortgage. The VAT change last year is reported to have taken £450 from each family with children across the UK.

11.15 pm

The UK economy is not growing and people’s standards of living are being compromised. Confidence amongst individuals and families is falling—that is key when we are looking at future economic growth prospects. Economic growth forecasts are being downgraded by all around except the Government and the unanimous response to today’s revised figures is that we are in for a period of subdued growth at best. As I say, the situation now is different from that of nearly three years ago when the VAT cut was first used as a part of fiscal policy. Back then, we were preventing the situation from getting worse and the recession from deepening; now we are looking at how we can generate growth. Part of the Institute for Fiscal Studies’ reason for backing policies such as a temporary VAT cut is that there is a time frame—people can see an end and know that they must spend to take advantage of it, as advocated by my new clause 9.

Alun Cairns: I give the hon. Gentleman and his party credit for having had consistent policy on this matter, but has he had any indication about where the official Opposition stand on his amendment? There has been some indecision within the official Opposition, with policies being announced without the shadow Cabinet knowing about them.

Jonathan Edwards: We will have to wait and see. I just hope that my words are powerful enough to entice them to come through the Lobby with us, but I am afraid we will have to wait until a little later in the evening.

I was talking about one positive reason for a temporary VAT cut, but that would not be my main, or only, consideration. The purpose behind the cut would be to help the millions of ordinary people who would benefit from not having to pay those extra pennies and pounds every day to the Government, which they could then use to spend or save elsewhere as they saw fit. They could spend them on other goods and stimulate the economy in that way or they could keep them to pay off

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their debts. At the moment, many costs have been factored into the margins of businesses and many businesses have not yet raised their prices to meet this new inflation from both VAT and other spending increases. If we can keep prices down through the use of a temporary VAT cut and keep high street prices down with it, we will help families. On the other hand, if we can secure the margins for shops and companies, we will help business. I hope that Government Members will agree with that point. Either scenario would be a win-win situation for families and business. Negating a key element of inflationary pressure would also enable monetary policy to be kept loose for longer, which I would imagine is a key objective for the Treasury and the Monetary Policy Committee.

In closing last year’s debate on the effect that the VAT increase would have on the budgets of public sector organisations, the devolved Governments and charities, I asked the Government what analysis they had made of the impact that increasing VAT would have on the operating costs of those bodies, as one study had estimated that increasing VAT would cost charities alone an extra £150 million per annum. I would be grateful if the Minister addressed that specific point in winding up. We will be pushing for a division on new clause 9, as it would introduce a temporary reduction and is more likely to generate support across the House. New clause 6 would be our preferred solution in the long term, but I will not push it to a vote tonight.

Ian Swales: I rise to speak against new clause 6 and I note that we have had no costings from its proposer, the hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr (Jonathan Edwards). I would be interested to find out what he thinks the policy would cost. I can report that there was no dancing in the streets of Redcar when the VAT was reduced from 17.5% to 15%, and neither have we had riots in the streets about the rises from 15% to 17.5% and then to 20%.

Ian Lucas: There may not have been dancing in the streets, but after that reduction in VAT there was economic growth—something that has not happened as a result of the hon. Gentleman’s new-found friends’ policy, which he is now following, but which he refuted and rejected in order to get elected.

Ian Swales: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I believe that the policy that his Government followed cost £12 billion; it would be difficult to spend £12 billion and not give some stimulus to the economy. I shall come to my view on that in a moment.

There was hysteria about the VAT rate among Labour Members, but if people in the street were not shouting about it, it is worth asking why. Our predecessors in this place knew that putting VAT on everything would be a very regressive measure, so they did not do that. They recognised that the basic costs of living should be VAT-free. In fact, when it was first introduced in 1979, some reporters described it as a luxury tax. Let us just think about all the things that are VAT-free: rent, mortgages, council tax, water costs, fares on buses, trains and planes, prescriptions, dental and optical care, newspapers, magazines, books, betting, bingo, the lottery, postage, TV licences, children’s clothes and shoes and, above all, food. Although gas and electricity were originally VAT-free, they now have a fixed VAT rate of 5%.

Ian Lucas: Because of the Labour Government.

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Ian Swales: Yes, absolutely. This Government have made no changes on any of those items, nor will the new clause lower the cost of those items. Of course, that list covers the vast bulk of the weekly bills of lower-income families and pensioners. In fact, I am sure that many pensioners do not pay any standard VAT in many a typical week.

Toby Perkins (Chesterfield) (Lab): It is hard to know where to start, given the number of areas on which the hon. Gentleman is wrong, but let me just point out one. The increase in VAT affects the cost of absolutely everything. As it is on fuel, it adds to the cost of getting food to our properties. VAT impacts on the cost of every single thing. It is an indiscriminate tax that hits the pensioner, the unemployed, and the single mother just the same is it does the millionaire in his castle.

Ian Swales: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I just read out a long list of items that are VAT-free; that was the point of what I was saying.

Clive Efford: Those items were VAT-free when the hon. Gentleman made his pledge at the general election. When he stood for election, he said that the poorest people in society were affected most by increases in VAT, and that it was therefore a regressive tax. He was right then, and that point is still right now. Why, then, is it correct and appropriate for the poorest people in our communities to pay for the deficit that was run up by the richest bankers in the country?

Ian Swales: The hon. Gentleman has strayed off the topic of the new clause, but on my party’s policy on VAT, obviously we are between a rock and a hard place, due to the economic state of the country. We had some very difficult choices to make, and a progressive expenditure tax is the right answer.

Sir Menzies Campbell (North East Fife) (LD): My hon. Friend points out that difficult choices had to be made; indeed, they would undoubtedly have had to be made if a Labour Government had been returned. Does he recall that it was the policy of the last Labour Chancellor of the Exchequer to raise VAT to 19%?

Ian Swales: I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for reminding me of that fact. One of the things that have been absent from Labour Members is alternative policies to those being pursued by the Government.

The week after VAT was reduced by 2.5%, Cristiano Ronaldo, the premiership footballer, saved £4,000 on the cost of his new Ferrari. He will also have made massive savings on many of his other purchases during that period. I doubt whether any constituent of mine saved £4,000 as a result of VAT being reduced.

VAT as applied in this country is a progressive tax on spending. The more people spend, the more they pay, so the inconvenient truth is that cuts in VAT benefit people in proportion to how wealthy they are.

Nic Dakin (Scunthorpe) (Lab): Does the hon. Gentleman think that when Save the Children says that

“the discount rate and exemptions doesn’t take into account the incomes of people buying goods and services—so they are not enough to make VAT fairer”,

Save the Children has got it wrong?

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Ian Swales: I understand that charities have an issue with VAT, and I understand that Save the Children is right in its analysis. I am talking about the effect on personal spending.

The concept of a progressive spending tax is well understood across Europe. New clause 6 would take VAT in the UK back to a level where, among EU countries, only Cyprus and Luxembourg would have a lower rate. We have not heard from the Opposition parties how they plan to finance the cut in VAT.

Nia Griffith (Llanelli) (Lab): Can the hon. Gentleman think of any other way in which people who can afford a Ferrari could contribute to the tax system?

Ian Swales: Well, £4,000 extra VAT is obviously one way that they are contributing as a result of this Government’s policies.

The hon. Member for Nottingham East (Chris Leslie) said in the previous debate that the important focus of the tax and benefit system is on need and alleviation of poverty. I believe that VAT increases, which impact on the wealthy more than on the poor, are a good way of doing that.

Kelvin Hopkins (Luton North) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman keeps referring to VAT as a progressive tax. It is a flat tax, proportionate all the way up the income scale. Progressive taxes have increasing rates at higher incomes.

Ian Swales: Technically, VAT is a progressive spending tax because the average rate paid increases the more one spends. That is the definition of a progressive tax.

Kate Green: Does the hon. Gentleman accept that in relation to the proportion of a household income rather than its expenditure, VAT is a regressive tax? That is why we on the Opposition Benches are opposed to it.

Ian Swales: No, I do not accept that, because of the long list of items that are VAT-free. If everything had VAT applied, I would agree with the hon. Lady.

We have had no view about how the Opposition would fund the proposed cut in VAT. If they wished to borrow, which presumably is the answer, there are many options which are fairer to pensioners and the less well-off and more likely to encourage economic growth. Reducing VAT would be a flawed policy, just as it was last time, and I urge the House to reject new clause 6.

Mr David Hanson (Delyn) (Lab): I shall speak to new clause 10, but before I do so, may I remind the hon. Member for Redcar (Ian Swales) that he fought an election on the Tory tax bombshell? I remember pictures of the Deputy Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr Clegg), standing in front of a poster that referred to a Tory tax bombshell—

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Lindsay Hoyle): Order. I am sure the right hon. Gentleman would want to speak through the Chair.

Mr Hanson: I remember the hon. Member for Redcar standing with the Deputy Prime Minister in front of a poster that said “Tory tax bombshell”. I find it amazing

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to hear the hon. Gentleman speak this evening as an apologist for the Conservative Government’s imposition of VAT on people in Britain.

New clause 10 calls for a review of the assessment of the impact of VAT on UK economic growth over the next three months. As Members know, last Tuesday we voted on a Labour motion, which was opposed by the Liberal Democrats, to cut VAT on a temporary basis to 17.5% while economic growth is restored. The Conservative party voted against that motion, which would have ensured that we had the VAT cut proposed today.

Mr Gauke: The right hon. Gentleman will be aware that tax law is made in Finance Bills. Given that we are debating such a Bill, will he explain why the official Opposition have not brought forward their own proposals, in a form that could be selected, to cut VAT on a temporary basis, or have they abandoned that policy?

11.30 pm

Mr Hanson: The policy is clear. If the Exchequer Secretary looks at new clause 10, he will see that we want an assessment of the impact of VAT that looks at how we should deal with the question of VAT across the whole UK. Let me start by saying that we have a deficit reduction plan, as he knows, and a plan to save resources to tackle the deficit, and we have a plan to ensure that we meet the needs of this country. He will know that we have consistently supported opposition to the Government’s VAT rise since they brought it forward.

Alun Cairns: I note that the right hon. Gentleman is speaking to new clause 10, which is very different from the proposal made to the House only a week ago. Is this yet another shift in official Opposition policy?

Mr Hanson: The hon. Gentleman cannot get away from the fact that he has imposed a VAT rise on businesses, families and hard-working people in Vale of Glamorgan and elsewhere in the UK, and he could have avoided that tax in different ways. On the same evening that the Conservative party has proposed tax relief on support for private medical insurance—[ Interruption. ] Well, I may be mistaken, but I believe that the hon. Members for Christchurch (Mr Chope) and for North East Hertfordshire (Oliver Heald) are Conservative Members of Parliament. The hon. Member for Vale of Glamorgan (Alun Cairns) has imposed a VAT rise on his constituents that is unfair, damaging business and will damage the UK economy.

Christopher Pincher: We all feel very sorry for the right hon. Gentleman, sitting there having to speak to new clause 10. Last week he proposed cutting VAT, but this week he simply wants to assess it. What will his policy be next week?

Mr Hanson: The policy is exactly the same week in, week out. We have opposed the VAT increase and the hon. Gentleman has voted for it. Last week we supported a temporary cut to help the economy and he opposed it. We are calling for a review of the impact of VAT on businesses and families, and tonight he will oppose it. This is an important debate and we have an opportunity tonight to assess the impact of VAT and look at the issues that affect constituents.

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Harriett Baldwin (West Worcestershire) (Con): New clause 16, which is on the amendment paper in the right hon. Gentleman’s name, has not been selected for debate. Will he explain why it was late and unable to be selected?

Mr Hanson: The hon. Lady will know that we have tabled several amendments to the Finance Bill. Mr Speaker chose not to select new clause 16, but he did select new clause 10, which calls for a review of the impact of VAT on things that are important to my hon. Friends’ constituents and hers: family incomes, businesses and jobs. If she looks at what the leader of her party said during the general election—[ Interruption. ] Perhaps the hon. Member for Chelsea and Fulham (Greg Hands) should listen to this, because during the general election the then Leader of the Opposition said during the Cameron Direct campaign in Exeter:

“You could try, as you say, to put it on VAT, sales tax, but again if you look at the effect of sales tax, it’s very regressive, it hits the poorest the hardest.”

I agree with the Prime Minister. Does the hon. Member for Chelsea and Fulham agree with his right hon. Friend?

John Hemming: On the point about hitting the poorest hardest, does the right hon. Gentleman not accept that the poorest people, those on means-tested benefits, receive an up-rating for the cost of living, which is in fact in excess of the extra VAT, and so benefit by 1% in excess of the extra cost of VAT?

Mr Hanson: I am afraid that every Labour Member believes that VAT is a regressive tax that hits the poorest hardest. When the Conservative party—

Mr Gauke rose

Mr Hanson: Wait. When the Conservative party—[ Interruption. ]

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Lindsay Hoyle): Order. Mr Hemming, you have had one intervention. If the shadow Minister is not giving way, you should respect that.

Mr Hanson: When the Conservative party, supported by Liberals who at the general election opposed VAT increases, imposes VAT increases, it does so on businesses and on jobs and hardest on the poorest people in our society. I will now give way to the Minister so that he can explain that.

Mr Gauke: The right hon. Gentleman says that every Labour Member opposes the increase in VAT. Will he explain, first, why so few of them voted against it last year and, secondly, why the previous Chancellor, the right hon. Member for Edinburgh South West (Mr Darling), according to Peter Mandelson’s memoirs, was in favour of raising VAT to 19%?

Mr Hanson: I have great respect for my right hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh South West (Mr Darling), and he is a very good friend of mine, but the issue tonight is that no Labour Government increased VAT above 17.5%. Indeed, the same Chancellor of the Exchequer, my right hon. Friend, in similar circumstances to those that we face now, when there is pressure on jobs, on businesses and on incomes, temporarily reduced VAT to help hard-working families to cope.

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Andrew Gwynne: My right hon. Friend is absolutely right to draw the House’s attention to new clause 10. All it asks for is an impact assessment of the rate of VAT on UK economic growth. Is it not the case that, since the VAT rate was increased, consumer confidence has flatlined and retail sales have fallen?

Mr Hanson: It is very interesting that my hon. Friend makes that point about the VAT increase, because following that reckless gamble, inflation, which was 3.1% in September, was 4.5% in April and May, hitting savings, pensions, incomes, jobs and people’s livelihoods. He will know that confidence is important and that consumer confidence is now at minus 31%. Overall confidence was three points lower in April than in March, and lower than at any time since spring 2009.

Stephen Williams (Bristol West) (LD): Confidence is a measure of sentiment and opinion, but spending power is a fact, so will the right hon. Gentleman explain how in January, February, March and April consumer expenditure went up?

Mr Hanson: The hon. Gentleman will know that the Office for Budget Responsibility and every independent forecaster have already shown that growth in the economy has flatlined over the past 12 months, following the impact of the Labour Government’s measures at the end of their time in office at the beginning of 2010. Since then, growth has flatlined and unemployment is projected to increase by 200,000 over the next year.

Stephen Williams: I thank the right hon. Gentleman for giving me a second chance to pose my question to him. The Library’s statistics show that, in the four months since VAT was increased, consumer expenditure in shops increased month after month, so how can he say that consumer confidence has declined? That is not about economic growth, which is how he answered my first question; it is about consumer confidence and spending. Will he deal with that point, please?

Mr Hanson: I suppose that is why the Federation of Master Builders only today—[ Interruption. ] Just for the record, on my uttering “Federation of Master Builders”, Conservative Members fell about with laughter, but the FMB’s members build houses and employ people in the construction industry. Only today—in a brief dated today—it stated:

“The situation for small construction firms has been made more perilous by the VAT increase at the start of the year,”

and that we risk

“11,400 construction job losses and 34,000 total potential job losses”

because of the VAT increase. The hon. Member for Bristol West (Stephen Williams) and his colleagues may recall that the OBR expects some 200,000 additional people to become unemployed this year. The lack of consumer confidence, the impact of VAT and the lack of consumer spending will be critical to those potential job losses in the community.

Kelvin Hopkins: The Tories have a track record on this. My right hon. Friend may recall that in 1979 they raised VAT from 8% to 15%, massively deflating the economy. Unemployment rose by 2 million and a fifth of manufacturing industry disappeared, and it was all down to that policy.

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Mr Hanson: I remember that very well. The Conservatives said at that general election that they would not double VAT. They did not double it, but they increased it by 7%. Perhaps the Liberal Democrats have learned some lessons about breaking election promises.

Alun Cairns: I seem to remember that Labour opposed all those increases in VAT, but not once did it reverse them. Is that true?

Mr Hanson: No, I think we did. I have been here quite a few years now, and I recall that in 1993 the Conservative Government increased VAT on fuel and had to reduce it because of measures supported by the Labour party in opposition. The hon. Gentleman may not remember that.

Ben Gummer (Ipswich) (Con): Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr Hanson: In a moment. Let me try to return to some of the key points of the debate.

Ian Lucas: Government Members seem to view the British construction industry with some levity. In a debate this morning on the crisis in the construction industry, no Liberal Democrats turned up and one Tory Back Bencher turned up 20 minutes late. The increase in VAT has had a massive impact on the construction industry, as one will hear from any representative group and anyone involved in the sector. Government Members are in complete denial about the madness of the policy that they are pursuing and the firms that they are driving into bankruptcy.

Mr Hanson: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for those comments. He will know that the Conservative party’s VAT increase alone will cost the average family with children £450 this year—far more than they will gain through any increases in tax thresholds.

John Hemming rose

Mr Hanson: If the hon. Gentleman will allow me, I should like to try to make some progress. I have been very generous in giving way so far.

Although unemployment has fallen by a couple of hundred thousand in the past few months, and that is very welcome, the OBR has said that the lack of consumer confidence, the impact of VAT increases and the long-term lack of economic growth will hit employment hard. Average UK unemployment at the moment is about 7.7%, but for those of us who represent seats in Wales, the east midlands, Scotland, the north-west, London, Yorkshire and Humberside, the west midlands and the north-east, it is well above that level. That is partly because of the impact of the VAT increase on retail sales and manufacturing in our communities. When the Government introduced the increase in January this year, the chairman of the Federation of Small Businesses, John Walker, said:

“A recent FSB survey shows that 70% of businesses are worried about the VAT increase, with almost half of respondents going to have to increase prices as a result and 45% believing it will decrease their turnover”.

The situation with regard to jobs is very important.

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Diana Johnson (Kingston upon Hull North) (Lab): In my constituency, 85 claimants of jobseeker’s allowance are chasing every vacancy. Would not a reduction in VAT assist those people?

Mr Hanson: My hon. Friend’s region of Yorkshire and Humberside has a 9.2% unemployment rate overall, compared with 5.7% in the south-east of England. For someone who is unemployed, the figure is 100% wherever they are. Nevertheless, there are regions of the United Kingdom where many people are chasing jobs, there is a lack of consumer confidence, traditional manufacturing and the retail industry are being hit by a lack of demand, and growth is not occurring, and the VAT increase has been damaging to all those things.

Ian Swales: I have listened carefully to the right hon. Gentleman’s speech and that of the hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr (Jonathan Edwards). Neither has contained details of the cost of such a reduction in VAT. Once we know that figure, we will be able to give many ways in which our economy could be stimulated with such an amount of money. We are still not sure where it is coming from. Reducing the price of Italian sports cars and round-the-world cruises is only one option.

11.45 pm

Mr Hanson: The hon. Gentleman shows his complete ignorance of the impact that value added tax has on ordinary working people and their families. The rise in VAT is costing ordinary working people in Redcar and every other constituency an additional £450 each this year. Low-paid people will bear the brunt of that. I look forward to going back to Redcar with hon. Friends from the north-east and explaining what the hon. Gentleman is doing about those concerns.

Malcolm Bruce (Gordon) (LD): The Labour party is keen on cutting taxes and on opposing cuts in expenditure. Consequently, it would widen the deficit, which is already at record levels. The consequence of that would be an increase in interest rates. Does the right hon. Gentleman not think that the retail trade and consumers would be more concerned about an increase in interest rates than a rise in VAT?

Mr Hanson: At the beginning of my speech, I said that we had a deficit reduction plan at the last election. When I was a Minister at the Home Office in the previous Government, we forwarded plans for £1.5 billion-worth of expenditure cuts. The Conservative-led Government are cutting £2.5 billion in that Department, which is why we are losing police officers and police community support officers, and why I fear that crime will go up. There was a plan. There were certainly issues that we had to tackle, and we will tackle them. The way in which the Government propose to tackle the deficit goes too far, too fast and too deep. It is being done in an unfair way that hits the poorest people hardest, and it will damage the long-term business interests of the United Kingdom.

Mr Geoffrey Robinson (Coventry North West) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend agree not only that the coalition Government’s policies will deflate the economy,

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but that they are missing their own deficit reduction targets? They are so far from meeting them that they will have to borrow £46 billion more than it forecast, although they have not yet corrected the figure.

Mr Hanson: My hon. Friend is absolutely correct. The Conservative-Liberal Government are missing their borrowing targets and will have to increase borrowing by £46 billion because unemployment will rise over the next year and because we have lower growth. There is lower growth, in part, because of a lack of confidence, which has happened, in part, because of the rise in value added tax. It is an unfair tax that hits the poorest people hardest.

John Hemming rose—

Mr Hanson: Before I let the hon. Gentleman intervene, I ask him whether he will contradict the right hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes), who said:

“I hope we don’t have a VAT increase because it is the most regressive form of tax, it penalises the poor at the same rate as the rich.”

Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will agree with his right hon. Friend.

John Hemming: I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Redcar (Ian Swales), who is an accountant, that on the basis of expenditure deciles VAT is a mildly progressive tax. I ask the right hon. Gentleman, whose name appears above unselected new clause, 16, which would put VAT up to 20% once things improve, why the Labour party, having opposed VAT at 20%, now believes that it should be at 20% in the long term.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Lindsay Hoyle): Order. We are not going to get bogged down in the VAT figures. We need to talk about the new clauses in the group. We are drifting into parts where we should not be.

Mr Hanson: I remind the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (John Hemming) that new clause 10 calls for a review of the impact of value added tax on businesses and families over the next three months. Labour Members voted last week for a temporary reduction in VAT. Labour policy is to have a temporary reduction to tackle the real issues that we all face in our constituencies in relation to jobs, living standards and the future of our businesses.

Toby Perkins: I am listening to the debate with tremendous interest. There is a determined gaggle of Liberal Democrats here, arguing in the strongest possible terms that the manifesto that they have just fought an election on was totally wrong. Has my right hon. Friend ever known such a passionate rejection of a policy by Members who told us only a year earlier that we should be voting for it?

Mr Hanson: The most passionate rejection that I have seen in recent years was in Chesterfield, of my hon. Friend’s predecessor. He stood just next to where I am now before the election, when I was Police Minister, calling for more police and more expenditure. Yet now, the Liberal Democrats are saying that we should have had less expenditure.

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I accept that I am going slightly wide of the issue of VAT, Mr Deputy Speaker, so I will return to it. VAT hits not just families or businesses but public services. The national health service in England will be hit by an extra £250 million a year because of the rise in VAT. A CT body scanner that cost £700,000 before the rise in VAT will now cost £17,500 more. A fully equipped ambulance that would have cost £225,000 will cost an extra £5,500. There is about £3 million a year of expenditure by each NHS trust on locum doctors, which will increase by £75,000. A Government who want to cut public spending are levying additional costs on the health service in England.

In my own region, in Wales, the actual cost of the increase in VAT to NHS budgets since 1 January is estimated at £13.2 million. For colleagues in Scotland, I add that Scottish health boards have been saddled with an extra £71 million of costs because of the VAT increase. At a time of decreasing public spending and squeezed budgets, we need to review the matter over the next few months and consider whether the VAT increase is causing even more difficulty.

Bill Esterson (Sefton Central) (Lab): My right hon. Friend is explaining in incredible detail the danger that the VAT increase is causing. I wish to bring to his attention the effect that it is having on pensioners in my constituency, one of whom wrote to me to express his outrage. I cannot repeat what he said, because he swore in his e-mail, but he said that