Ed Miliband uses PMQ debut to attack child benefit reform

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Ed Miliband today used his first appearance as Labour leader at Prime Minister's Questions to go on the attack over Government plans to scrap child benefit for higher-rate taxpayers.

In a relatively low-key first outing at PMQs, Mr Miliband told David Cameron his proposals were neither fair nor reasonable and would hit thousands of middle-income families across the country.

But Mr Cameron retorted that it was not fair for families in the Labour leader's Doncaster North constituency on one-sixth of his salary to be contributing towards his child benefit.

He insisted the reform - which will end payments to any family with a parent earning more than around £44,000 - was fair, and challenged Mr Miliband's claim to speak for the "squeezed middle", saying it was Labour who "squeezed the middle" with tax hikes while they were in power.

Mr Miliband won the Labour leadership by the narrowest of margins on September 25, defeating his brother David by 1.3% in an alternative vote ballot thanks to the support of trade unions.

The circumstances of his election made him the butt of jokes from Mr Cameron before he even rose to ask his first question.

Tory backbencher David Evennett highlighted the fact that David Miliband outpolled Ed among Labour MPs by asking the Prime Minister whether he would congratulate them on their choice "even though he didn't win".

Commentators have suggested that Mr Cameron was happier to be facing Ed Miliband, rather than his older sibling, across the dispatch box.

But the Labour leader's aides warned that people underestimated the former energy secretary at their peril and said he was "on good form and relaxed" ahead of his PMQs debut.

He has been taking tips from deputy leader Harriet Harman - who won plaudits for some of her appearances as interim leader and was at Mr Miliband's side on the Labour frontbench today. His preparation team for today's session also included rising star Chuka Umunna, who he appointed last week as his parliamentary aide.

Mr Cameron congratulated the new Labour leader on his election and said he was sure there would be "many times we can work together over issues of national interest", but directed a jibe in his direction by adding: "As well as wishing him well, I wish that he does the job for many, many years to come."

And the PM - who opposes a switch to AV for Westminster elections - won laughs from the Tory backbenchers by saying it was "good to see the alternative vote in action" but that the unions will not have so large a part to play in next year's referendum.

Dressed in sober black suit and purple tie and adopting a deliberately calm and even tone of voice, Mr Miliband steered largely clear of jokes in his six questions to the PM.

He has criticised the "yah-boo" style of debate at PMQs and is said to be keen to "set a good example".

He made a point of joining Mr Cameron in his tributes to fallen British troops and aid worker Linda Norgrove, backing Foreign Secretary William Hague's decision to authorise an attempt to rescue her and promising to work "constructively" with the PM on Afghanistan, as well as on reform of sickness benefits.

But he moved to the attack over the Government's planned child benefit reforms, denouncing Chancellor George Osborne's announcement at last week's Conservative conference as a "shambles".

Hundreds of thousands of families would be asking "Why should a family on £45,000 where one stays at home lose their child benefit - £1,000, £2,000, £3,000 a year - but a family on £80,000 where both partners are working keep their child benefit?" said Mr Miliband.

"That doesn't strike them as fair, it doesn't strike me as fair. Does it strike the Prime Minister as fair?"

A family with three children on £33,000 a year after tax would lose £2,500 from 2013 - the equivalent of a 6p hike in their income tax, he said.

Mr Cameron responded: "The fact is that today we spend £1 billion giving money through child benefit to relatively better-off homes.

"We think that has to change and I have to ask him why he thinks that is not the case?"

But Mr Miliband replied: "I may be new to this game, but I think I ask the questions and he should answer them."

Awarding the Prime Minister "nought out of two on straight answers", he said: "We should try to change the tone of these exchanges, but he must provide straight answers to straight questions."

He quoted comments made by Mr Cameron ahead of the General Election in which he said he did not want to change or means-test child benefit.

But the PM launched his own attack on Mr Miliband, reminding him of his own comment that whoever won the Labour leadership contest would have to provide an alternative plan for bringing down the deficit.

"The problem that he has to face up to is that he left us the biggest budget deficit and he has got absolutely no proposals on how to deal with it," said Mr Cameron.

He quoted the support for child benefit reform from Labour's former Cabinet minister Alan Milburn, adding the barbed comment: "All the Labour politicians who used to win elections have been thrown out of the window."

Mr Miliband retorted: "If he wants to take people with him on deficit reduction, he has got to show that his changes are fair and reasonable. I don't believe his changes are fair and reasonable. Does he?"

And he added: "The truth is that the Prime Minister has no defence of this policy. He can't explain to families up and down the country why they are going to sustain this loss. This policy has been a shambles from day one.

"On child benefit, isn't it time the Prime Minister had the grown-up sense to admit this: he's got it wrong, he's made the wrong decision, he should tell middle-income families up and down the country he will think again."

Mr Cameron accused Mr Miliband of "suddenly discovering middle-income families" after years of taxing them in Government, saying: "It's a completely transparent political strategy to cover up the inconvenient truth that he was put where he is by the trade union movement."

He compared the new Labour leader - branded "red Ed" by some critics after his election - to his predecessor Gordon Brown, telling MPs: "It is just short-term tactics and political positioning. It's not red, it's Brown."