"Is a time of financial crisis when many people are losing their jobs not the best time to push through radical reform of welfare to gain public trust in the system and get control of cost."
John, I agree with you that radical welfare reform is long overdue. I wish it had started earlier, such as in 2007 when David Freud published his groundbreaking report, which was at the time rejected by Gordon Brown. But yes, the recession cannot be used as an excuse for not bringing about the reform that we need. That is why we are supporting the Government’s Welfare Reform Bill although it doesn’t go far enough. The Government is still being too timid, which is why we have called on them to go further, for example by changing the Treasury rules so that savings in the benefit system can be invested in a greater use of voluntary and private welfare-to-work providers.
"Aren't tax credits for married couples simply forms of social engineering by social conservatives, trying to impose their own values on the rest of us?
As there are lots of new Conservative MPs likely to be elected at the next election, will we see a socially conservative tone of government, or a socially liberal one where the state won't purposefully try to interfere in how we lead our lives?"
Our proposals are firstly about addressing an imbalance in the current system which discriminates against couples. So we have said that we will end the couple penalty which actually pays people to live apart despite all the evidence about what is best for children. I think David Cameron has been right to focus on the family and as you know we have said we will recognise marriage in the tax system. It’s not about being socially conservative or liberal, but socially responsible. I cannot speak for our future MPs, but David’s recent speech on fixing our broken politics gave a very clear indication of our views on the role and power of the state, and gave some specific proposals for reducing the power of central government.
This is a big area of concern. The first thing to say is that accrued benefits have to be protected. But clearly we cannot ignore the growing disparity between public and private sector pension arrangements. It is a difficult issue to address in opposition as we don’t have all the information available – there is disagreement as to the extent of liabilities but they could be around £1 trillion. One of the things that would really help is greater transparency so that taxpayers fully understand the costs involved and public sector workers can see how valuable their retirement incomes will be. So we have said that the Independent Office of Budget Responsibility which we would set up in Government would conduct a full review of public sector pensions. We’ve also said that the pension arrangements for MPs need to be changed so that new Members enter a defined contribution scheme.
Peter, I do recall that you sent me a DVD of the film you made on this issue and I apologise if you didn’t receive a reply. Failure to respond to your correspondence did not however mean that I was not doing something about the issue. There have been a number of attempts in recent years to change the system of expenses and allowances although progress was not as great as many of us would have liked. As Shadow Leader of the House I chaired the Members Estimate Audit Committee which in 2005/06 commissioned a review of Members Allowances focusing on the Green Book. In December 2007 the Audit Committee made recommendations to the Members Estimates Committee on the audit of Members' expenses. I was a member of the Members Estimate Committee which then included proposals for external audit in the set of reforms it put before the House in July 2008. The introduction of external audit should have helped to identify, and then put an end to, the sort of unacceptable practices which have come to light recently. Those reforms would also have reduced the amount that MPs could claim for. Unfortunately these proposals were rejected by the Commons, largely as a result of Labour MPs (including Gordon Brown) failing to support them. Indeed the Prime Minister did not even bother to vote on these proposals and 30 ministers voted against them. David Cameron showed leadership by whipping the Shadow Cabinet to support these proposals which is unusual for House business. Later in July 2008 we used an Opposition Day debate to introduce a Commons motion calling again for independent auditing and a reduction in what MPs could claim for – Conservative MPs supported this on a three line whip but it was again defeated by Labour. External audit was finally accepted by the House later last year. Needless to say, a number of those proposals have now been hurriedly accepted by the Government.
"What are the top five things the Shadow Cabinet will do to address the current crisis in politics?"
Good question. David Cameron has been clear that we would not simply wait for Sir Christopher Kelly’s review to report in the autumn as the current crisis is too serious for that. So the five key things that we are doing are:
1) Requiring all Conservative MPs to have their expenses examined by a scrutiny panel which will determine whether claims have been excessive and, if so, how much money needs to be paid back.
2)Immediately banning all Conservative MPs from claiming furniture, other household goods and daily subsistence allowance.
3) Publishing all claims online immediately. This has already begun.
4) Banning ‘flipping’.
5) Ensuring that anyone selling a home for which mortgage interest is currently paid for by allowances pays Capital Gains Tax
In the longer term we need to clean up politics and push for further reforms such as cutting the number of MPs, curbing the power of whips in Parliament, and redistributing power locally. And, of course, we need an immediate general election so that the public can have their say on what they think of their MP.
"...I think I will stick with my instincts and vote UKIP for the European elections.
And, whisper who dares, what exactly is to bad about BNP? They would be a cat amongst the pigeons in the Eu parliament and that is only to the good as far as I am concerned.
Lets face it, the EU elections are an irrelevance because whatever we vote is not going to make one iota of difference to this un-democratic bunch of shysters. So why NOT BNP?"
I suggest that you look at the excellent NothingBritish.com website for info on the BNP. This is a party which thrives on division and hatred in our communities. They preach a message of intolerance which flies in the face of this country's history and heritage. I don’t want racists representing Britain in the European Parliament.
As for UKIP, they actually voted to allow Spanish trawlers to fish in protected British waters and voted against global free trade. That’s not to mention their own infighting and expenses scandals.