Mr Speaker, it should be common ground that all Western economies need to reshape their social contract to meet the challenges of economic competition and demographic change.
Expanding childcare versus higher child benefit; Housing Benefit versus housebuilding; long term care versus reliefs and benefits for old age. In each case, we need to choose.
This Bill invites us to make three judgments: about fairness, about affordability, and about politics.
The Chancellor said in the Autumn Statement the Bill was about distinguishing working people from those who are “asleep, living a life on benefits”. Yet most of the people hit by this Bill are working. So that argument is blown out of the water.
And what of the idea that 3120 people in South Shields on Income Support, and 4200 on Job Seekers Allowance, are choosing a Life of Riley.
The PM himself claimed that the reforms of two years ago ended the “option” of life on benefits. The Government’s own figures show the level of fraud to be 0.7 per cent – the figure is lower for immigrants. And DWP’s own figures show over 10 job seekers for every vacancy advertised in the local South Shields Jobcentre. That’s not fair.
What of affordability? The Government says the alternative to this Bill is higher borrowing or higher taxation. But that is not true.
The Government have projected the cost of all benefits, all tax credits and all tax reliefs. I am happy to debate priorities within that envelope. A proper debate – about choices not the total sum.
The measures before us raise £3.7 billion in 2015/16 from poor and lower middle income people.
Meanwhile the Chancellor has cut tax relief for pension contributions – but only by £200m in 2013/14 rising to £600 million in 2015/16. The cumulative saving between now and 2015/16 from the richest is £1.1bn - compared to £5.6bn for those on benefit and/or receiving tax credits.
So this is not equality of sacrifice. The Chancellor reminds me of the man in the 1929 election poster, standing above others on a ladder. Water is up to the neck of the man on the bottom rung, while the man at the top shouts “Equality - let’s all go down one rung”.
The Government have made a great deal of the point that no one should receive more from benefits than the average wage of £26 000. But they offer tax relief of £40 000 – for those with £40 000 to spare. That costs £33bn a year.
If we limited tax relief on pension contributions to £26 000 a year, we would have no need for this Bill.
But this rancid Bill is not about fairness or affordability. It reeks of politics, the politics of dividing lines that the current Government spent so much time denouncing when they were in Opposition in the dog days of the Brown Administration. It says a lot that within two years it has fallen into the same trap.
We all know the style. Invent your own enemy. Spin your campaign to a newspaper editor short on facts – or high on prejudice. “Frame” the debate.
But the enemy within is unemployment not the unemployed. And I don’t want to live in a society where we pretend that we can enjoy the good life while our neighbours lose their life chances.
It is bad enough to have no economic growth or 420 000 young long term unemployed or rising levels of child poverty or declining levels of social mobility.
It is hard to stomach a Government that takes no responsibility for their mistakes.
It is intolerable then to blame the unemployed for their poverty and our deficit.
And that is why I will vote for the amendment and against the Bill tonight.