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Column 180Trotter, Neville
Twinn, Dr Ian
Waddington, Rt Hon David
Wakeham, Rt Hon John
Waldegrave, Rt Hon William
Walker, Bill (T'side North)
Walker, Rt Hon P. (W'cester)
Walters, Sir Dennis
Wardle, Charles (Bexhill)
Wheeler, Sir John
Young, Sir George (Acton)
Tellers for the Noes :
Mr. Nicholas Bennett and
Mr. Tim Devlin.
Question accordingly negatived.
Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow) : On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Against the background of which you are aware, may I ask whether there has been any request from the Department of Energy to explain the eyebrow- raising matter of the sponsorship of a senior civil servant, Mr. Bernard Ingham, in very extraordinary circumstances by British Nuclear Fuels, in the light of the answer that was given yesterday?
Mr. Michael Brown (Brigg and Cleethorpes) : On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I draw your attention to the title of today's ten-minute Bill. You will note that the hon. Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook) asked leave to bring in a Bill specifically
"for the appointment of a pay board to supervise a pay mechanism for annual increases in ambulance staff pay".
I draw your attention, Mr. Speaker, first, to "Erskine May", page 464--
Mr. Brown : My point of order has nothing whatever to do with that raised by my hon. Friend. My point of order relates to something that occurred during the speech of the hon. Member for Livingston, which happens, by coincidence, to appear on the same page, page 464. I draw your attention, Mr. Speaker, to the fact that "Erskine May" states, in the third paragraph on that page,
"After a brief explanatory statement of the objects of the bill"-- and then there is a footnote, No. 5, which reads :
"The mover should explain what the bill will do".
There is then a further reference to a House of Commons debate in 1987. You gave the following ruling after the hon. Member for Halifax (Mrs. Mahon) had presented the National Health Service (Provision of Services) Bill :
"in making an application to bring in a Bill, it is necessary to describe what the Bill contains."--[ Official Report, 16 December 1987 ; Vol. 124, c. 1112.]
I draw your attention again, Mr. Speaker, to the fact that there were no details in the hon. Gentleman's application as to how the pay board was to be constituted, how it was to be supervised, who was to appoint it and to whom it should be accountable. I submit that that was a gross abuse of the procedure for presenting a ten-minute Bill.
Column 181nothing further to add to that. In any event, the matter is now irrelevant, because leave has not been given to bring in the Bill.
Mr. Graham Riddick (Colne Valley) : On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Can you assure me that if I queue up for hours and hours to get the right to present a ten-minute Bill, it will not then be hijacked by a Cabinet Minister and presented by that Minister?
Mr. Harry Cohen (Leyton) : On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. May I ask you to look at what happened during the ten-minute Bill, particularly the raising of a point of order in the middle of the speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook)? It is a new development, as far as I am aware, for points of order to be allowed in the middle of a speech on a ten-minute Bill. It was not a genuine point of order ; it was done because the points being made by my hon. Friend were effective and not liked by Conservative Members.
When a point of order is raised, it is necessary that the Chair hears what it is. If it needs immediate attention, the occupant of the Chair must deal with it. That was not so today and I ruled it out of order.
Mr. Tony Marlow (Northampton, North) : On a mercifully brief point of order, Mr. Speaker. I am sure that many hon. Members on both sides of the House feel that there is something undignified about somebody with the awesome responsibilities of the hon. Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook) having to spend the night tossing and turning in the Public Bill Office. My point, which you may want to discuss through the usual channels, is that Standing Order No. 19 says that you have the power to permit, if you think fit, a brief explanatory statement from an hon. Member who makes an application to bring in a ten-minute Bill. May I put it to you, as the Back Benchers' tribune and on behalf of all Back Benchers, that in future you use your discretion only when it is a Back Bencher, and not a Front Bencher, who is trying to use this great privilege of the House?
As we have had a late start on this motion, I appeal to the House for brief speeches from the Front and the Back Benches.
That this House, noting that there are now some 3 million more people forced to live on or below the poverty line than in 1979, noting that total tax cuts over the last decade have been more than paid for by benefit cuts in excess of 20 billion pounds imposed on those on lowest incomes, especially pensioners, and noting that the Government's deliberate increase in inequality has not promoted economic efficiency but trapped millions of low-income individuals deeper in poverty, calls upon the Government to provide incentives for all to achieve pathways out of poverty and to gain the fair share in rising living standards that is offered elsewhere in Europe. It would be easy to make the case that the number of people forced to live in poverty on supplementary benefit--now income support--has risen by over 50 per cent. in the last decade to more than 9 million people today, and that there are now some 2.5 million people living below the level of income that Parliament has laid down as the minimum on which anyone should live.
It would be easy to make the case that the worst-off in our society have seen their living standards fall sharply over this decade by comparison with those in work. It would be easy to make the case, too, not only that the rich have been made richer by this Government but that it has been done by making the poor much poorer. The savings that the Government have made at the expense of pensioners by cutting them out of rising living standards --savings to the Government, but cuts, of course, to pensioners--which over the decade now amount to over £20 billion, more than cover the total cost of all the Government's tax cuts since 1979.
It would be easy to make that case, because it is all true and widely known to be true. That is precisely why I shall not rehearse it in detail. Instead, I intend to take the Government's own declared philosophy in its own right, and to assess that against reality, as far as possible through the eyes of those at whom it is directed. On that basis I shall then press three serious charges of which, even in their own terms, the Government are guilty.
The Prime Minister's view on all this is clear and unequivocal. She told the House--this almost takes one's breath away but these are her words :
"people who are living in need are fully and properly provided for."--[ Official Report , 22 December 1983 ; Vol. 51, c. 561.] Let us test that against the facts. The report of the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux, published this month, on social fund applicants includes this example :
"Young man, tetraplegic, rehoused in flat following a year in hospital and two and a half years in residential care.
Column 183Refused grant for fridge to reduce need to shop, because there was no indication that without a grant you would have to enter residential institutional care'."
I shall give one more example from another NACAB report published three months ago :
"A CAB in Yorks/Humberside reported a client who first contacted them seven days after his bridging allowance had run out. He had an offer of a job, but it was not due to start for a week and would then be paid a week in arrears. By the time he was paid, he would have been three weeks with no money. DSS refused a crisis loan and told him to go to a soup kitchen. He was unable to take the job due to his deteriorating physical state and revisited the CAB a couple of weeks later. By this time he was starving, physically weak and unable to keep down a hot drink. The client's mother is dead and his father is terminally ill."
So he had no one to turn to but the DSS, and the DSS turned him away.
The Prime Minister's belligerent pretentions brook no doubts. In her letter just before Christmas chastising church leaders for attacking the Government's record on poverty--which I note they did effectively again yesterday--she went even further :
"Over the last decade living standards have increased at all points of income distribution--and that includes the poorest."
If that is so, one wonders how she knows, since her own Government have suppressed all the relevant evidence. They have abolished the Royal Commission on income and wealth, curtailed the general household survey, abolished the Supplementary Benefits Commission which regularly published relevant information, made more changes in unemployment statistics than there are holes in a colander, removed from "Social Trends" the material on the link between unemployment and ill health, and blocked the publication of the Black report on health and social class.
How then does the Prime Minister know? We could do with a little glasnost, since the political concealment of the truth is highly reminiscent of pre- Gorbachev Soviet censorship. There can be no better indicator of official shamefacedness. Is that the reason why we have had no official statistics on low-income families for the last five years?
Mr. Harry Barnes (Derbyshire, North-East) : My hon. Friend has given two examples. May I give another example from my constituency? I have a constituent called Melvin Wall who two years ago had his toes removed. He received mobility allowance. Later, one leg was removed below the knee. Then the other leg was removed below the knee. His mobility allowance was stopped after only two years. The junior Minister has the case in his in- tray, and we may get a response at some stage. What happens is that occasionally there is a trawl to try to remove people from the payments system. Obviously Melvin Wall was caught up in that.
Mr. Meacher : It is a pity that the Prime Minister is not here, because it would be nice to know how she thinks that that person who is in need is fully and effectively provided for. My hon. Friend has illustrated one case from thousands around the country which show the complete indifference and lack of concern about need in Britain today.
What we know shows that the Prime Minister is downright wrong. The latest information from official
Column 184sources shows that the number of people below pension age living on or below the supplementary benefit level more than doubled, to 6.5 million, between 1979 and 1985. The Government's explanation is that the rise in the real value of supplementary benefit, which was about 1 per cent., accounted for half the huge increase. That gives the whole game away. Even if we accept the Government's explanation, which I do not, the fact remains that the other half of the increase, nearly 2 million, is implicitly admitted by the Government to be due to a rise in absolute poverty.
My real charge against the Government is not merely that there has unquestionably been a substantial increase in poverty in the 1980s, but that the Government's policy for redressing poverty is completely discredited. The Government claimed that, if entrepreneurs were motivated with big incentives, the trickle-down effect would ensure that some of the gains went to low-income families. What the Government never admitted was that the big incentives were to be paid for by squeezing the very people on low incomes who were supposed to be the beneficiaries of the policy. Indeed, the Government have done what no other Government, even previous Tory Governments, ever did before : they have pushed whole groups of people below a poverty line which was always accepted by all previous Governments as the minimum for healthy physical survival.
People who get loans from the social fund are forced to repay them out of basic income support. Where, as in most places, the poll tax levy is higher than the Government's supposed national average, individuals on the lowest incomes will have to pay out of income support the amount by which the levy exceeds the 20 per cent. allowance. People living in bed-and-breakfast accommodation now have to pay amenity charges out of income support for facilities such as hot water or breakfast, which they often do not get.
Let me quote just one example of the trend, which is far from untypical. A single girl, aged 17, was placed in bed-and-breakfast accommodation by a local authority because she was regarded as a vulnerable single person. Her basic income support was assessed at £18.72 from which £4.87 was deducted for repayment of a social fund loan. She actually received £13.85 in income support. Out of that she was required to pay £6 a week for heating, breakfast and other services, even if those were not available. Her actual living income was therefore £7.85 a week.
My first charge is about the Prime Minister's boast, as she expressed it again in the House in 1988 :
"Everyone in the nation has benefited from the increased prosperity-- everyone."--[ Official Report, 17 May 1988 ; Vol. 133, c. 801.]
Not only is that boast completely phoney, as millions could tell her, but she has reduced even the little share that they already had. If the Prime Minister would only get out of her bullet-proof limousine and visit her subjects occasionally, if she would only take a short walk from here to cardboard city on the South Bank, or perhaps go on the Underground for a change, the truth would stare her in the face.
Mr. Eric S. Heffer (Liverpool, Walton) : Does my hon. Friend agree that the Prime Minister could do nothing better than to read an excellent new report from the Church, "Living Faith in the City", which says :
"Too much emphasis is being placed on individualism and not enough on collective obligation"?
Column 185The Prime Minister could read that report with great interest and benefit from it. It cites some statistics :
"The official General Household Survey shows that in 1986 1 million households in Britain (5 per cent.) had a gross weekly income of £40 or less and 3illion households (18 per cent.) had a gross weekly income of £60 or less."
I suggest that the Prime Minister has a go at supporting a family on that sort of income.
Mr. Meacher : My hon. Friend makes an effective point. A former Conservative MP boasted that he could exist for a week on supplementary benefit, as it then was. He did so brazenly in front of the television cameras, but he could not get through to the end of the week. He was a fit young man, and people in a much frailer state of health have to endure that standard of living for months, if not years, on end.
Mr. Harry Cohen (Leyton) : Does my hon. Friend agree that matters can be even worse than that for an individual living on supplementary benefit? If he takes out a social fund loan, money will be taken away from him in repayments, and the poll tax may be deducted from his benefit as well. Such people will have to subsist on a pittance.
Mr. Meacher : My hon. Friend eloquently makes a point that I have touched on, and anticipated other questions to which I shall come. My second charge is that the Prime Minister has consistently talked about the incentive society with open opportunities for all, yet her policies have effectively shut out a quarter of the nation. That matters as remedying poverty is not primarily a matter of improving benefits but of giving people the chance to earn their own living. A major feature of British society today is the fast-growing number of marginalised poor people living alongside others who are increasingly affluent and consumer-orientated and unable to share in any growing prosperity. In their experience, this is not "opportunities Britain" but "obstacle course Britain".
Lone parents, of whom there are now more than 1 million in Britain, three quarters of them previously married, illustrate that point poignantly. I shall cite one example :
"for the past two years Mrs. Barnes has been out of work, living off the £33.28 weekly that is left in benefit after her mortgage has been paid determined to do the best for herself"
and her son, aged eight,
"she has taken a job as a home help for Kent County Council, helping old people and the disabled with shopping, cleaning and cooking As yet, she is not sure whether she will be left with more or less money out of her earnings of £2.83 per hour, once the mortgage of £171 per month is paid because Family Credit, the benefit that is supposed to make it worthwhile for the low-paid to remain in work"
does not, of course, take account of mortgage payments. "Either way, it will be a matter of a few pounds which effectively means she is working for almost nothing Money is not the fundamental problem which forces Mrs. Barnes into the underclass. It is the lack of child care after school and during school holidays which prevents her from earning"
her living and becoming independent.
Mrs. Barnes's case illustrates the mortgage trap, but there are two further ways in which Government policy has made it more difficult for lone parents to get work. First, there is the child care trap. While the earnings disregard was raised in 1988 from £12 to £15 a week, no account is taken of work expenses, and that effectively
Column 186traps those unable to get free child care. In addition, there is the benefits trap. Low-income families lost their entitlement to free school meals in the Fowler review, and that means that it is more difficult for lone parents, especially those with more than one school-age child, to go out to work. With sharper clawbacks, too, for the rate of loss of housing benefit, it is not surprising that fewer lone parents have a part-time job now than before the Government's social security review.
Then there is the debt trap, in which persistent very low incomes force people into the arms of the social fund--with all the consequences to which my hon. Friend the Member for Leyton (Mr. Cohen) referred--or even into the hands of loan sharks. That drives people deeper into poverty and makes the recovery of economic self-reliance much more difficult.
Many other people are discriminated against by the Government's rules. Two months ago, the Secretary of State introduced a £43-a-week means test on unemployment benefit. A part-time worker who works one day or more a week will now lose a whole week's benefit. I submit to the right hon. Gentleman that that is a serious disincentive to people taking up part-time work.
Perhaps the worst way in which the Government are blocking the way out of dependency is the double bind in which they have placed 16 to 19-year-olds over work and accommodation. In a report issued two months ago, the Association of Chief Officers of Probation cited one example from its case notes :
"a 17-year-old girl, in care since she was four was supposed to be repaying a social fund loan as well as a fine, but had received no benefit since she left YTS."
" homeless and without any income, in danger of prostitution and drug abuse, very vulnerable.' The likely outcome was starvation and reoffending'. She had damaged a telephone to get into police cell for food and shelter."
What is needed, and what the Labour party proposes, is a recasting of public services so that they become fully accessible as pathways out of poverty. High-quality training needs to be more widely available, particularly for women re-entering the labour market after caring for dependants, for 16 to 19-year-olds and for the long-term unemployed, if they are to gain entrance to the enterprise culture. Disabled people need improved local services, such as appropriate transport and community care, adaptation for access to buildings and skills and benefits that make part- time work worth while for the partially incapacitated.
We would also abolish the unfair and discriminatory tax that is currently levied on the imputed value of workplace nurseries, which, despite being such a limitation, raise only about £1 million a year in revenue. We deplore and would reverse the worsening of the social wage in recent years, our poor public transport, the lack of home helps and other community services and damp and unfit housing--all of which not only lower the quality of life but stifle initiatives to gain and hold employment. Only then will we begin to transform excluded Britain into an enabling society.
My third charge against the Prime Minister is that she is letting this country fall further and further behind Europe, in basic social rights as in so many other ways. I am well aware that there is rather a sterile debate about whether poverty is absolute or relative, but there can be no argument about the need for us to achieve, if not exceed,