Treasury Questions was a little quieter than usual today: George Osborne is away and so Ed Balls left the questions to his colleague Chris Leslie. The Shadow Chancellor didn’t say entirely quiet, though, gradually turning a warm shade of pink as he barracked away while perched on the opposition front bench. Labour landed very few blows today: Rachel Reeves continued the attack on the EU budget, Leslie tried rather ineffectually to talk about borrowing, and backbenchers made a few grumbles. The two really interesting questions came from the coalition benches: and more specifically, from two sacked ministers.
Tim Loughton, who is fast establishing himself post-reshuffle as an effective campaigning backbencher specialising in children’s issues, told Danny Alexander he was worried about a plan floated by David Cameron and George Osborne to scrap housing benefit payments for under-25s. He asked:
‘Anne Marie Carrie, the excellent head of Barnardo’s, recently said that the proposal to remove housing benefit from all under-25s ‘is reckless and unfair as it will leave some of this country’s most vulnerable people stranded’. I am particularly concerned about the impact on care leavers, who do not have a family home or family to fall back on and for whom a safe and stable roof over their heads means they can keep off the streets, out of the NEET statistics, and out of trouble. Will the Chief Secretary guarantee now that he will work with other ministers to make sure that any changes to housing benefit for under-25s do nothing further to disadvantage that already disadvantaged group?’
Alexander, whose party is still mulling the cut for young people along with other ideas for taking a further £10 billion from the welfare bill, replied:
‘My honourable friend makes a very good point about care leavers. These ideas have been floated as part of a discussion within government on the next phase of welfare reform. I will certainly make sure that his point is brought to bear in any discussions on that proposal.’
The other complaint came from Lib Dem Nick Harvey, who lost his job as defence minister in the reshuffle. He was unhappy about another plan which George Osborne had announced in his party conference speech: for employees to give up their rights in exchange for shares. ‘Does the minister accept that it will swiftly become a de facto compulsory scheme?’ he asked. ‘What level of employee shareholding is anticipated?’
Exchequer secretary David Gauke responded to this:
‘There will be a range of options – the minimum is 2,000, and the maximum is 50,000 – but this is not going to be a matter that is compulsory. It will not be the right answer for every business, but there are some businesses that need flexibility to find employee status somewhere between a full employee and someone who is self-employed such as a partner, as many hundreds of thousands of people are. I think that it is a sensible, pragmatic response.’
This second question might illustrate a quite obvious divide in the coalition over labour market reform – although one Tory backbencher I chatted with directly after Osborne’s speech said the announcement was ‘rubbish’ because even though it made sense, it would end up with front page headlines saying ‘Tories to workers: give up your rights!’. They were right about that. But Loughton, who has worked hard to become an expert on children’s issues while in government, represents a striking lone voice on the specific impact of a cut, rather than its overall intention, which remains very popular with Tory MPs. This is not the only issue he has chosen to speak out on now that he is free: shortly after Treasury questions, Loughton was on his feet again making a point following Theresa May’s statement on historic allegations of child abuse at North Wales care homes.
He told the Home Secretary that the government now has a ‘multiplicity of inquiries: this is an inquiry about an inquiry’. He added:
‘Is it not now time, rather than wake up every week to see a new institution involved in this mire, that we have an overreaching, robust public inquiry into the whole failings of child protection in various institutions throughout the latter part of the 20th century, be it the BBC, the health service, the police, the church and so on.’
It will be interesting to see which other areas of policy Loughton chooses to intervene on now that he is on the backbench. Given the depth of his knowledge in this area, he could be quite a dangerous figure, even if he remains outwardly loyal.