Sharon spoke during a Westminster Hall debate on the Government's proposed new tax to claw back child benefit from couples with a high earner.
Mrs Sharon Hodgson (Washington and Sunderland West) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this morning, Mr Streeter. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham (Roberta Blackman-Woods) on securing this important debate and on her excellent speech. If the Minister was not already worried, he should be by now because, as anyone familiar with my hon. Friend knows, she is a tireless campaigner for her constituents and against injustice generally. I am sure that this debate will not be the last we hear from her on this issue.
I am also pleased to follow the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope), who gave an excellent speech. It is great to see him on the right side, even if he was not for the poll tax. That shows that with age comes wisdom; I am pleased that the wisdom of his longevity has brought him to the right side on this issue.
We are discussing a complete mess, created by the omnishambles of a Budget, that has been allowed by Ministers to carry on for way too long. If we were being generous, we might suggest that the idea had been sitting on Whitehall shelves for some years, repeatedly pitched by numerous Sir Humphreys and batted away by successive Ministers until a particularly out-of-touch set of Ministers was easily convinced. Once the idea was out there, those same Ministers were too afraid to perform yet another 180° U-turn, so they turned only 150° instead. That would be the scenario if we were being kind.
If we were being less generous, we might wonder whether those out-of-touch Ministers were driving the idea through themselves, despite officials briefing them fully on how ludicrously complex it would be to implement and on the unfairness it would create. Perhaps the Minister will tell us which of those scenarios is the more accurate.
Either way, the high-income child benefit charge—that is what it is called—is a ridiculously complicated idea that fails the basic test of fairness. It is ridiculously complicated because the proposal is to introduce a tax in January 2013 that will not be collected until the following financial year, meaning an affected family with three children will be landed with a bill of more than £600 in additional tax during that following tax year.
If the Government are so determined to drive the charge through, why can they not at least marry up its introduction with the start of collection? The situation is ridiculously complicated; the charge will create hundreds of thousands of new self-assessed taxpayers while HMRC centres around the country, including some in my area, are being thinned out or closed entirely. Can the Minister tell us how many more staff HMRC will need to cope effectively with the increased flurry of returns over the Christmas and new year period as a result of the change? The charge is ridiculously complicated because it seeks to claw back tax from individuals for a benefit paid to other individuals who are separate in the eyes of the taxman, leaving the system open to both fraud and genuine errors.
Worse than all those complications is the fact that the measure fails the test of fairness because, for hundreds of thousands of families, it will take away a benefit that is supposed to be universal, as we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham; when the benefit was brought in by Eleanor Rathbone, the principle was that it should be universal.
The evidence shows overwhelmingly that the benefit is used to meet the costs of looking after children, such as ensuring that they are well fed and have the clothes and uniforms that they need for school and the bus fare that they need to get there. Such things apply to all families. The charge fails the test of fairness because it will penalise children in single-earner families, as we heard from the hon. Member for Christchurch, while many in double-earner families who are much better off will continue to receive the benefit. It fails the test of fairness because it is yet another policy from this Tory-led Government, whose leader claimed he wanted to create the most family-friendly Government in history, that will directly hurt children and families. Among many other changes, the policy comes on top of huge cuts to Sure Start and early-years provision, the scrapping of extended free school meal eligibility and child trust funds, and a hike in VAT.
In addition, the proposed measure will take even more money out of our local economies when demand for goods and services is at rock bottom. The Treasury aims to claw back £1.5 billion from 1.2 million households, or an average of more than £1,200 from every family affected, just in the first year, with more families becoming liable as incomes creep up and the threshold remains static. That is £1.5 billion a year that will not be being spent in local shops and businesses on our struggling high streets.
Barbara Keeley: My hon. Friend’s figures are useful, but apparently the vast bulk of child benefit is spent on clothes, books and food, which shows the areas where the measure will have an effect.
Mrs Hodgson: As I highlighted myself, those are the findings. That money is spent on our high street—on books, clothes and food; it is not put into trust funds or saved up. The majority of people, whether in two-earner or single-earner families, will be hurt by the proposal because they use the money for daily necessities and not for luxuries. That is £1.5 billion a year that will not be put to work improving the quality of life of any of the children in the affected families or preserving and creating jobs in my constituency or the constituencies of any other hon. Members.
Children did not cause the financial and economic situation, yet the Government seem intent on making them pay for it. At the same time, high fliers in the City, who might well have played a part in that situation, are rubbing their hands together in glee at the cuts to the top rate of tax. Those are not the actions of a Government who have their policies straight, or who understand the lives of hard-working families; the more the public see of the coalition Government’s choices, the more they realise how out of touch they are.
The Government will regret this ridiculous decision, just as our country will regret voting this incompetent shower of a Government into power. Thankfully, there will be a chance to undo that decision at the next election, and policies such as the child benefit charge will ensure that this incompetent Government serve no more than one term.