Thank you for calling me to talk in this important debate, Madam Deputy Speaker. I shall start by focusing on one or two comments that Members made earlier and then return to a central issue—getting those with disabilities back into work.
The right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Frank Field) said that 3 million strivers will be hammered. I am a great fan of his—he is the Chairman of the Select Committee of which I am a member, and I am sorry he is not in the Chamber to hear this—but his gloom tonight was focused on two things. The first is the big problem of unity and what approach to take to welfare and work within his own party. The second is an underlying belief that the only way to help the poor is ultimately to increase benefits from taxpayers, and that the only way out of poverty is to grow a tax credits bill that is already, at £30 billion a year, far greater than in the similar populations of France or Germany, and is, in the words of the former Chancellor, previously the right hon. Member for Edinburgh South West,
“subsidising lower wages in a way that was never intended”
when it was first introduced by the Government of the right hon. Member for Birkenhead.
The reason why the right hon. Gentleman and his party are discombobulated on the issue is that they rightly feared a reduction in benefits before an increase in wages and did not expect that my party, the party of compassionate conservatism, would implement precisely that: a national living wage considerably above that mooted by their former leader, plus an expansion of the tax-free allowance which will take the amount one can earn without paying income tax to almost double by 2020 the £6,500 allowance of 2010. They know that higher wages, lower tax and less welfare is the right way forward, because there was no social justice in spending over £170 billion more than we received in tax revenues, leaving the interest on Labour’s debts alone—the interest alone—costing us more than the entire education budget. There is no social justice in spending more on benefits—on the interest on all that debt—than on helping our children with education and giving them the chance to attain and to go on to good jobs.
Some of Labour’s leadership candidates have realised that point and seen that there are no more sweeties in the sweet bag and no credible alternative to this overall philosophy of higher wages, lower tax and less welfare—
Unless one believes that living within one’s means is always for someone else and not for us, and one wishes to follow an anti-austerity programme that has led a country like Greece to the brink of disaster. That is a political option, but it is not one that the city of Gloucester would ever want this country to follow.
I turn briefly to the second part of my speech. The Chancellor promised in his Budget speech that we would always support the elderly, the vulnerable and the disabled.
Our hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes) said that £30 billion a year is being spent on disability living allowance and on similar allowances. Does my hon. Friend agree that that is something all Government Members welcome?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to point out that the current welfare bill is unsustainable, but he is also right—I have seen him say this in Select Committee meetings—to say it is vital that we support the elderly, the vulnerable and the disabled. It is true that the Work programme has been far more successful for those on JSA than for those on ESA. The question therefore is: how do we help those people with disabilities who are currently not getting a job and not benefiting from the Work programme in the same way as those on JSA?
Some 61% of those in the ESA work-related action group say that they want to work and the evidence is that they do. I have heard from charities and from people with disabilities in my constituency how passionately they want to have the same working opportunities as the rest of us, so what can we do to help them? The Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson), in his role as the Minister for disabled people, has the ambitious task of halving the number of people with disabilities who are out of work. He will need some innovative thinking to help him, so let me make a couple of suggestions.
Should the hon. Gentleman not recognise that if these people want to work, it is the lack of support and the lack of jobs that is preventing them from getting into work. Why punish them by taking money away? It is like removing the crutches from someone who has just lost a leg before we give them the new limb. Let us get them into work—then they will not need the support.
The hon. Lady raises a perfectly valid point. There is a philosophical difference here: do we take the difference between what they currently get on ESA and JSA and use that money to help give them the greater support that should get them into jobs, or do we just carry on as we are, knowing that the current programme is not that successful? We have to do something different. We have to do more in the Work programme to make it more likely that people with disabilities will get jobs. The jobs are there; all the statistics tell us that more jobs are available than there are people looking for them, but those with disabilities are not getting them at the moment. They need more help with resilience and confidence—the things that make a difference when people go to an interview. They need employers who understand, so the Disability Confident programme is important. They need—we need—providers to understand that they must do more to help, and in return we probably need to give more cash up front, rather than depending solely on payment by returns for those in the ESA category. We MPs need to do our bit. When we hold job fairs, how many of us focus on those on ESA? It is time to tilt our jobs fairs away from those on JSA and towards those with disabilities and on ESA. We can do that, with the help of the Department for Work and Pensions.
There is much to be done, and I believe Ministers are aware that when they review the Work programme they will have to innovate to make sure that those with disabilities and on ESA stand a better chance of winning jobs in a competitive marketplace. We need to do more to help employers realise the importance of this. All of us need to do more as Members to inspire our residents and our businesses to apply for those jobs and to help them win them. That will be vital in reducing the working age welfare cost from 13% of all public spending at the moment to a more reasonable figure.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I regret that there is no more time. Above all, we need to inspire those with disabilities into a job. The Leonard Cheshire Disability charity said:
“We believe that disabled people should have the freedom…to contribute economically and to participate fully in society.”
I believe that all of us agree with that. Now we must do our bit to make sure it happens.