Harriet Harman

Labour Member of Parliament for Camberwell & Peckham

Challenging David Cameron at Prime Minister's Questions

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Today, in the House of Commons chamber, I challenged David Cameron on the impact on families on their plans to cut tax credits for working people. Cameron says that he is tackling low pay; but he is not, he is attacking the low-paid. I also raised the current migrant crisis in Calais, and asked the Prime Minister what actions he is taking to resolve it.

Ms Harriet Harman (Camberwell and Peckham) (Lab): I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to our armed services, including the Reserves. We honour those who are serving today, and we remember the sacrifice of those who have served in the past. Let us never forget them when we think of the freedom and democracy that we have today. I also pay tribute to the families’ federations—the Army Families Federation, the Naval Families Federation, and the RAF Families Federation. The great work they do supporting service families contributes so much to the strength of our services.

We have all seen the chaotic scenes at Calais where British travellers and lorry drivers are facing harassment and intimidation as 3,000 migrants try to get illegally into the UK. The French should be assessing them as soon as they get to Calais to decide whether they are genuine refugees or migrant workers who should be removed. How confident is the Prime Minister that the French are going to start taking effective action? What is he doing to put pressure on them, and will he raise the matter at the EU Council this weekend?

The Prime Minister: I thank the right hon. and learned Lady for what she said about forces’ families. She is absolutely right. This Saturday, when many of us will be attending Armed Forces Day celebrations and commemorations, is a moment to talk to those families and thank them for what they do when they are missing their loved ones.

The right hon. and learned Lady quite rightly asked about Calais. We have all been witnessing totally unacceptable scenes there over the past day. Of course, a key role was played by the strike that took place in France. She asked specifically about what should be done. Let me answer very clearly that of course we want to see migrants better documented and fingerprinted, but much of that needs to happen in Italy, where they land, rather than in France. There are three things on which we must act. First, we need to work with the French to achieve better security at Calais. We have already invested £12 million, and I am happy for us to do more if that is necessary. Secondly, we must work with our European partners to stop this problem at source—to break the link between getting in a boat and getting settlement in Europe. Thirdly, we must do more to ensure that Britain is a less easy place for illegal migrants to come to and work in, and that is what our Immigration Bill is all about.

Ms Harman: The Prime Minister is right that the problem is the responsibility of the Italian authorities and the French authorities, but as he acknowledges, it is also about the security of our border at Calais. Can he say a bit more about what steps he has taken to strengthen security at the UK border in Calais?

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The Prime Minister: The right hon. and learned Lady is absolutely right that the juxtaposed border controls on the French side are a good thing for our country, and we should be prepared to invest in them. That is what the £12 million has been about, but in talks with the Home Secretary this morning, we have been looking at whether we can put more personnel and, indeed, sniffer dog teams on that side of the channel to make a difference. Also, more work is being done on installing fencing, not only around the port at Calais, but around the Eurostar and Eurotunnel entrance. All those things can make a difference, and we should work very closely with the French. There is no point in either side trying to point the finger of blame at the other. This is a strong partnership that we have in place and we should keep it that way.

Ms Harman: I thank the Prime Minister for that answer. Efforts on all sides will need to be stepped up.

On another issue, in his speech on Monday the Prime Minister said:

“There’s…nothing progressive about robbing from our children”,

but is it not inevitable that cuts in tax credits for working families, unless employers raise their wages immediately, will mean that children are worse off?

The Prime Minister: First, what I said in that speech about robbing from our children was about the importance of getting our deficit down and not asking them to pay debts that we were not prepared to deal with ourselves. What we need to do is make sure we go on with a plan that is seeing 2.2 million more people in work. Crucially for children, compared with when I became Prime Minister, there are 390,000 fewer children in households where no one works. My programme for tackling poverty is to get more people in work, get them better paid, and cut their taxes.

Ms Harman: Well, I am asking about robbing from children in families who are facing tax credit cuts. The Institute for Fiscal Studies says that cutting £5 billion from tax credits would mean working families losing, on average, £1,400 a year. Now I know the right hon. Gentleman does not have to budget, but many families do—[Interruption.] That is the truth—[Interruption.] It is the truth. If hon. Members will just for a moment think about a lone parent working part-time: to compensate her for that loss of £1,400, the minimum wage would have to go up overnight by 25%. That is not going to happen, is it?

The Prime Minister: The problem with what the right hon. and learned Lady says is that the last Government did not budget for the country—[Interruption.] She asks—[Interruption.]

Mr Speaker: Order. I am very worried about the health of the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West). She must calm herself. We are at a very early stage in the proceedings. A period of calm must descend upon the House.

The Prime Minister: Because the last Government did not budget for the country, the whole country was plunged into poverty, which is what we have been dealing with. Let me explain what we are going to do. For those 

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who are out of work, we want to get them a job—a well paid job. That is the best route out of poverty. For those in work, we want to see higher rates of pay and lower taxes. Our programme is simple: let us have an economy with higher pay, lower taxes and lower welfare. What the right hon. and learned Lady seems to want is the current failure of low pay, high taxes and high welfare. That is what we need to move on from.

Ms Harman: You see, Mr Speaker, you do not get higher pay by cutting tax credits. The Prime Minister seems to be saying that low income families will not lose out because, somehow, on the day that he cuts tax credits, every employer in the country will rush to put up pay immediately. To compensate for the loss of tax credits, employers would have to put up pay overnight by twice what the Office for Budget Responsibility has said they will do over a full year. That is not going to happen, is it?

The Prime Minister: We are seeing rates of pay in our economy go up because we have a strong and successful economy due to the decisions we took. What the right hon. and learned Lady does not seem to understand is that if you do not get people back to work and reduce welfare, you will have to make deep cuts in the NHS, which we do not want to see, or put up taxes, which we do not want to see. If the Labour party wants to spend this five years arguing against any change in the welfare system, I say let it; it will end up with the same result.

Ms Harman: What the right hon. Gentleman does not seem to understand is that these are people who are in work. They are going out to work, providing for themselves and their children. The truth is that the Prime Minister will cut tax credits, and will not make up for that loss by putting up the minimum wage overnight. Employers will not make up for that loss either, so millions of families with children will be worse off. He says that he is tackling low pay; he is not. He is attacking the low-paid. So much for the party of working people.

The Prime Minister: The party of working people is the party that has got 2 million more people into work and almost 400,000 more children in households where people are working. That is why people see a party that believes in work up against a party that, according to one of its leadership contenders, is now the anti-worker party—that is what the right hon. Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper) said. I say to the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman) that in the week when Greece teeters on the brink, we should learn the lessons of what happens when debts spiral and a country loses control of its economy. Labour is stuck with the same answer: more borrowing, more welfare, and more debt. It is the same old Labour, and it will lead to the same old failure.

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