Mr John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con): I am grateful to the Labour party for choosing this important subject for this evening’s debate, because it is right that we should debate living standards. It is quite brave of the Labour party to choose this topic, because there was a sharp decline in living standards in the last years of the Labour Administration, but it is also true that there has been a further decline in the first 18 months of the coalition Government. It takes time to turn these things around. The main reason why living standards have continued to fall in the past 18 months is that inflation has been too high. If time permits, I wish to suggest some things Ministers could do in the drive against rising prices so that we can relieve some of the pressure on our constituents.
I agree with Labour and colleagues on the Government Benches that we are here above all to ensure the better prosperity of the people we represent. None of us wishes to see their constituents’ livings standards fall, and it is right that today we should consider, on an Opposition motion, how we might strengthen and improve living standards. I also agree with Labour that we need to debate jobs and growth and am delighted that the motion starts off with that. I am sure that Ministers on the Treasury Bench are well aware that, although they have introduced some measures, they have not yet done enough to ensure a rapid, strong and continuing recovery. We all look forward to my right hon. Friend the Chancellor adding to the range of policies and instruments that he can adopt to improve the chances of more rapid and sustained growth.
Again, it is a matter of common agreement across the Chamber that growth is a good thing, that it will mean more jobs, rising living standards and higher incomes and that it will bring with it more tax revenue. More tax revenue is much needed, because the Chancellor and his Front-Bench colleagues have decided to increase public spending in cash terms every year of the five-year period, which will not be easy to finance, given the very large running deficit and accumulated debt they inherited. Contrary to what some people in the media have said, the debt is still rising day by day because we are still running a large deficit.
I was hoping to say something good about the parts of the motion where Labour highlighted one of the problems people have with one of the Chancellor’s proposals. As many Labour Members and others have pointed out, with the wish to make richer people pay a little more by withdrawing child benefit there is the problem that those who are better off might in some cases get a better deal than those who are worse off. None of us likes that, and I think that there is common ground on that across the House. It is not a new discovery that Labour has highlighted today. I was hoping that it might have a contribution or a solution, because we know that the Treasury is thinking about whether the problem can be dealt with, but when I asked, thinking that I might find something I could support, answer came there none.
Ian Austin (Dudley North) (Lab): What advice would the right hon. Gentleman give to a constituent of his, earning perhaps £42,000 or £42,500, who has three children, is working hard, getting on in life and wants to do better, but who is offered a pay rise that would take them into the 40p tax band? They would then face the difficult choice between taking a promotion that they have worked hard to get and losing thousands of pounds in child benefit. What would he advise them to do?
Mr Redwood: That is a very good example of the problem one can get into, and that is why I wish my right hon. Friends on the Treasury Bench every success in dealing with what we can all see is a problem, but I am not recommending to them that they give up and say that somebody on £200,000 a year should still be able to get full child benefit. That is not the right answer, and I should hope that Labour might sympathise with that proposition and agree, but I am grateful that some Opposition Members are now coming round to my view that high marginal rates of tax and of benefit withdrawal, at all levels of income, are a disincentive.
Just as Government Front Benchers are rightly trying to tackle the very serious problem at the lower end, perhaps with some support from Labour, they should have some sympathy for people in the middle of the income scale, where the situation can be equally unpleasant and difficult for families struggling to meet their bills. Sometimes Opposition Members forget that, although people in my constituency tend to have a higher average income than many of the average incomes in their constituencies, my constituents’ housing costs, their travel costs and other factors in their cost of living mean that they need higher incomes in order to have the same living standard as those whose houses are half the price or less, because housing is a very big component.
The Labour party has rightly said that it would be wonderful if we could tax the banks more, and I again find myself in agreement with that. It is an immediately attractive proposition. We all know that banks are pretty unpopular, and we like to think of them as very rich, so it would be good if we could tax them more. Unfortunately, Labour is wrong to suggest that the Government have just offered another tax break to some banks by cutting the marginal rate of corporation tax. The reason we are getting so little tax out of them is nothing to do with a small drop in the corporation tax rate; it is that two of the biggest banks, Royal Bank of Scotland and Lloyds HBOS, are loss-making, so it does not matter what corporation tax rate we set, because they are not going to pay a penny of it. That is a disgrace, but it is where we have got to because of the disasters and problems in bank management over recent years.
Worse still, we are in the position whereby, if those banks do start to make money—it is true that the losses have been much reduced in the past year and they might start to make money—they will not be about to pay any tax, because they have such huge inherited losses from the period under Labour when they plunged into massive deficit and got into a disastrous position.
Richard Fuller (Bedford) (Con): My right hon. Friend is making very good points about the importance of companies being profitable so that they can pay tax, but when it comes to bankers and high earners paying taxes does he think that it is more important that the tax take is as high as it can be, or that we have a headline-grabbing marginal tax rate? Which is more important: the take or the rate?
Mr Redwood: I am very much of the view that we want a higher tax take, and I favour taking the tax from the people with the money, the rich, and from the companies with the money, rather than from the people who do not have it. That is what I believe, and I would hope that that again was common ground. The way we do so is by charging a rate that people are prepared to stay and pay, because the danger is that if we set the rates too high, people do not stay or they do not pay; they find clever accountants and lawyers, do less, invest less, risk less or go. It is the same with banks: if we get the rate wrong for banks, instead of getting more money out of them, we get less.
In 1979 when Labour had had a strongly socialist Government, they left office with a marginal income tax rate—in which some current Opposition Members would take pride—of 83p in the pound. In those days the top 1% of income tax payers contributed just 11% of the total income tax take, because the rich had either gone or had clever arrangements to avoid paying tax. When the Conservatives brought the rate down to 40%, not only did the amount of money paid by the rich go up, and the real amount that they paid go up significantly, but the proportion of total income tax that they paid more than doubled. Surely that is a desirable outcome, and it is the same with banks: we need to find a way of taxing them.
My first recommendation to the Chancellor for his Budget is to sort out the banks. We need to create some working banks out of the RBS framework, get them out there in the market, sell them off, get them into a profitable state without all the back history of tax losses, and create new entities that can trade properly and lend money for the recovery, and then we can get some tax revenue out of them. I hope that Labour Members might agree with that proposition. We then need to tackle the problem of inflation, which has been rising too rapidly.
I am glad that those on the Front Bench have done something about council tax bills—I hope that Labour councils will join Conservative councils in keeping those bills down, because they are very difficult for many people to afford—and have started to do some work on fuel prices, although they are still extremely high. We could do more to get water and energy bills down. I recommend that we allow more competition in those industries, particularly water. In the energy industries, we need more private sector-led investment, with an emphasis on cheaper power, which is needed to tackle fuel poverty and inflation and to secure an industrial recovery. The Government need to recognise that energy is now usually the biggest cost in many industries and, instead of favouring dear power, follow competition and private investment policies that will promote cheaper energy.