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Column 198people and low income families with children, and our record of increased expenditure on social security which underlies what we have been able to do, show the Opposition's motion to be the nonsense that it is and which the House will judge it to be when it votes. 6 pm
Sir David Steel (Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale) : No objective person would seek to deny the Secretary of State's description of the growing prosperity and rising living standards in Britain over the past decade, but amidst those rising standards there is, unhappily, also a rising and perhaps largely ignored level of poverty, to which public opinion and the Government should be awakened. We must at least assume that in a democracy public opinion will have some influence on Government, even though their conduct of the ambulance drivers' dispute does not give us much hope.
Because this is an important issue, I am glad to have associated myself with a campaign which was launched just before Christmas by an interdenominational group of churches called Church Action on Poverty. In its publication it quotes the figures issued by the Government in 1985 which clearly show that some 9 million of our fellow citizens are living at or below the official supplementary benefit levels--a 50 per cent. increase since 1979.
To a large extent, the explanation for that is the dramatic rise in unemployment that we saw in the middle of the decade, and that is also part of the explanation for the greatly increased Government expenditure on social security, a figure that the Secretary of State gave us. But those are explanations rather than excuses, and it should be a matter of concern to what is basically a prosperous country that we have that substantial level of poverty in our midst. Some of it is the result of direct policy changes by the Government. For example, the result of changes in the tax and benefit systems combined is that the bottom 60 per cent. of earners have had their incomes cut by £6.6 billion since 1979, while the top 10 per cent. have had an overall increase of £5.6 billion. There has been a deliberate shift in the redistribution of weekly and monthly wealth in Britain.
Similarly, the impact of the poll tax has yet to be understood by those who represent constituencies where the poll tax has not yet come into operation. Most hon. Members I see present have not yet had experience of this, but I speak as a Scottish Member. Research undertaken by the local government information unit demonstrates that the poll tax will add to the trend that I have already described, resulting from the changes in tax and benefit policies. Of the poorest tenth, some 83 per cent. will lose out by the introduction of the poll tax compared with the old rating system, while 71 per cent. of the richest tenth will gain. That is an additional factor that is yet to have an impact on most of the United Kingdom's economy in the current year.
There is a new level of poverty on which no one has touched and on which I do not propose to dwell--I am not sure that poverty is precisely the right word--created as a result of the Government's policy, which my party fully supported, to sell council houses. The impact of huge interest rates and mortgage increases means that many people are now struggling to pay their mortgages. The latest figure that I have shows that, in the middle of last
Column 199year, some 45,000 home buyers in Britain were more than six months in arrears with their mortgage payments. That has caused great stress to many of our fellow citizens.
The existence of poverty on that substantial scale in Britain cannot be explained away by a mixture of bad luck and personal weakness. It is caused by the economic and political processes which direct our society. It is caused largely by Government policy and we must be concerned that a country that is capable of generating so much wealth is also capable of generating so much division between rich and poor in our society.
About 18 months ago in Canada, I listened with interest and amusement to a lecture by the American Liberal economist, J. K. Galbraith. His description of the experience in the United States applies to Britain. He said :
"We have had, in these last years, large reductions in the effective rates of the income tax on the very rich. And also a powerful crusade against the welfare services to the poor. The rich, it is held, need incentive to greater economic effort ; the poor need release from the debilitating effect of welfare The rich have not been working because they have too little money ; the poor have not been working because they have too much."
A great deal of that philosophy has been around in economic and political circles over the past decade. But the underclass that has been created and isolated from the rest of society by its poverty is, in the main, composed of people who do not work. A few, admittedly, may be workshy, but most cannot work because they live in the wrong areas, have no usable skills, are too old or have children or relatives for whom they have to care.
In some of the big cities that I have visited during the past decade, which other hon. Members represent--parts of Liverpool and Birmingham--most notably the cities that have suffered major industrial decline, there are communities of mass poverty of those who do not work. There is one difference between them and the poverty that afflicted the Victorian generation : they have before them night after night the vision of the other society on their television screens. That is one reason why there is a direct correlation between the areas of deprivation and the rising crime rate, particularly the rising rate of crime against property. The contrast is obvious between their life experience and the picture that they see presented to them not only in television programmes but in the acquisitive, attractive nature of television commercials.
Poverty is not limited to the much publicised inner cities. I congratulate the Opposition on choosing this subject for debate. The hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher) gave one or two examples from newspaper cuttings, still valid for all that, but which enabled the Secretary of State to say that the Ministry should be sent names, details and facts. I want to give the House five snapshots of actual cases that I have dealt with in my constituency over the past two years. The first is related to the poll tax.
A young man aged under 25, whose needs under the Government's new policy are assessed as less than those of other human beings, came to see me. He was doing something of which the Government approve--he was on a Government training scheme. His income was £44 a week and he had received a poll tax demand for £17 a month. The first thing that I did was to check with the local authority that his rebate had been properly calculated, and it had. I wrote to the Secretary of State--this is my
Column 200response to his concluding remark--asking how he expected a man on £44 a week to pay £17 a month poll tax. His reply was that the rebate was a matter for the local authority to determine. That is the truth, but it is not the whole truth. The local authority can only determine the rebate on the scales laid down by the Secretary of State's Department. I repeat the question : how can one expect a person on an income of £44 per week to pay poll tax of £17 a month?
My second snapshot is of an elderly widow in Lauderdale on an income of £44 per week combined pension and income supplement. Because of changes to the rate rebate system the year before the introduction of poll tax, she received a rates demand for £75 on the house that she rents from her late husband's employer. She asked me how she was expected to pay that bill on her income. Again I checked that the amount being demanded of her was correct, and it was. The lady also showed me her bank book, with details of her life savings, saying, "You must understand that if I pay that £75 now out of those savings, and something the same next year, and then poll tax the year after that, soon I shall have nothing left to see me decently into my box". That is the reality of life for many people-- not just in the inner-city areas but in small towns and villages throughout the country.
My third snapshot concerns a single man living in Galashiels, who had been unemployed for two years. His income of £33.40 was subject to a deduction of £5 as repayment for a social fund loan. He asked me how he was expected, from an income of £28 a week, to feed and clothe himself, and to keep warm. I replied that I could not answer his question.
My fourth snapshot is of a couple from Innerleithen, with a weekly pension of £80, who, despite both being ill and requiring medicine, were refused free prescriptions. Again, I checked that that refusal was correct. The husband wrote to me that he was informing his doctor that, when the present round of prescriptions came to an end, he was taking no more medicine because he could not afford it, and that he and his wife had the greater priority of keeping themselves warm. The Government's attitude to prescription, dental and eye test charges is fundamentally wrong. In response to a survey published a week or two ago showing that the number of people submitting themselves for eye tests has fallen by 36 per cent. in the nine months since charges were first introduced, the Secretary of State for Health was reported in The Daily Telegraph as saying : "Clearly, the market has not had time to settle, but I am sure that most people are not going to be deterred from visiting their optician because of the requirement to pay a relatively modest charge." That attitude is all right for a Cabinet Minister on a salary of £50,000 per year or more, because of course a charge of £10 or £12 is relatively modest to him. But it is not a modest charge to the kind of people I have been describing and who visit my constituency clinic ; nor is it a modest charge if one is an ambulance driver. When the Government bandy about phrases such as "a relatively modest charge", they are being very insensitive.
My last snapshot is of a widow in Selkirk who wrote that, because of the prospective pension increase in April, she would lose £1 of income support, which I also checked. She wrote to me that she was worried sick. I shall read a brief extract from her letter :
Column 201"I wrote to Mrs. Thatcher about two years ago about the cost of the television licence for the elderly, as there are a lot who find it very difficult. I myself have gone back to black and white. Her answer was that we could afford it quite well. I would like her to live for one year completely and utterly on the pension and have rent, poll tax, heating, etc. to pay from it. She would give up long before the year was out."
That backs up what the hon. Member for Oldham, West said about a former Member of Parliament who attempted the same thing. I conclude with two suggestions. The first is a technical one. The Government ought to look at the proposal from the working party under the chairmanship of my noble Friend Baroness Seear for the integration of the tax and benefits system and for the introduction of a low-income benefit that would guarantee a minimum income regardless of the individual's circumstances, including whether or not he was in work. That solution should be carefully and immediately examined.
My second suggestion is for a change of attitude by the Government. I have not forgotten the Prime Minister's remark :
"No one would have remembered the good samaritan if he had only good intentions--he had money as well."
She ignores the fact that the good samaritan had concern for the misfortune of someone from a completely different background. This country has the money, but we lack the will to change. Young people of 24 are able to leave university and immediately obtain jobs in the City at a salary of £25,000 a year. Good luck to them--but do we not have a common conscience about the less well-off? The present system has created a submerged population--an underclass living in poverty and despair. It is the responsibility of the whole of the community, and especially of this Parliament and of the present Government. 6.15 pm
Sir George Young (Ealing, Acton) : The right hon. Member for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale (Sir. D. Steel) will forgive me if I do not pursue the moving stories that he told the House. I shall not do so, because the debate began at three minutes to 5 o'clock and must end at 7 o'clock. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State sat down at 6 o'clock, with more than half the time available for the debate having been occupied by the speeches of the two Front Bench spokesmen. Allowing one quarter of an hour for wind-up speeches, seven Back Benchers are left competing for the remaining 40 minutes. The specific point I want to make concerns the capital cut-off for benefit eligibility, which is currently £8,000. The most difficult question for any Conservative Member to answer is why people who were prudent during their working lives and who put aside money for their retirement are effectively penalised by the social security system--whereas others who were not so prudent and enjoyed a higher standard of living during their working lives are entitled to income support, housing benefit, and other rebates.
We try to answer that question the best way that we can, but the truth is that there is some disincentive to save and some incentive to reduce capital. That aspect was mentioned also by my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Mr. Latham) in an intervention. I hope that my right hon. Friend will reconsider the capital cut-off limit, because if it is raised it will blunt the cutting
Column 202edge of the criticisms of the system that are made repeatedly and are deeply felt by those who were prudent enough to put money aside. My first general point is that the nature of poverty has changed, so the way that we tackle it must change as well. In the old days, the poor were born poor, grew up poor, and died poor--and their children were poor as well.
Sir George Young : I hope that the hon. Lady will remain silent. The general approach in those days was to raise incomes. Today, poverty is more closely related to changes in life style, retirement, widowhood, disablement, lone parenthood, AIDS, and young people leaving home. The Finer report on single-parent families and the poverty that confronts them makes it clear that poverty is simply a phase. If it is the case that poverty is linked to changes in one's life style or life cycle, it follows that one must focus measures to tackle it on the general circumstances that I have described. The benefits system must examine those life cycle changes of retirement and bereavement, and of the husband leaving the family, and try to focus help on those specific changes, rather than raise universal benefits all round--although that was the right approach to poverty when the situation was very different from that of today. The Government are adopting that approach by focusing extra help on the very elderly and on very poor pensioners, and by taking a more rational approach to the disabled and to lone parents. That approach, which I warmly welcome, must be pursued further when looking at the young who have left home. I hope that the Departments of Social Security and of the Environment will take a fresh look at the young homeless, who are the most blatant example of today's poor. My second general point is that one can plot the income changes of the typical married couple. They often start life together with two incomes, but that falls to one income when they start a family. Subsequently, when the family has grown up, it reverts to one and a half or sometimes two incomes. One can thereby plot the changes in income.
One can also plot the changes in commitments--typically, a mortgage and the cost of bringing up children. If one plots the income flow of a family against its commitments, one finds that its income is at its lowest at the point when its commitments are at their highest. With only one wage earner, the mortgage takes a disproportionate portion of income, and there is the responsibility of child rearing. We should put some work into seeing whether we can rearrange the flow of income available to families in a way that more rationally matches their commitments, so that they do not find at the age of 45 or 50, when the responsibility of child rearing is over and the mortgage is paid off, that they have surplus cash which they desperately needed when they were younger. I leave that thought with the Minister in the hope that we shall find a way round that mismatch of resources against commitments.
Related to that is the resource that many people have when they retire--a house that is worth a substantial sum--whereas those living in it may be on low incomes. Having encouraged people to turn income into capital throughout their lives by encouraging them to purchase
Column 203homes, we should do more to encourage them to change the capital back into income when they retire, when they need the income and when it is often a waste of resources for them to pass the capital on to their children, who are often enjoying higher living standards than they are.
We need only look at the increase in expenditure on benefits--20 per cent. more in real terms since the Conservatives came to power--the increase in the value of benefits and the number of new benefits to see that the case for resisting the Opposition's charge and supporting the Government amendment is extremely strong.
Ms. Dawn Primarolo (Bristol, South) : It is absolutely unbelievable that we should be told that poverty is the result of changed life styles or circumstances, and that it could be alleviated by helping those who have nothing to manage nothing more sensibly so that they can get out of the poverty trap.
To suggest that that can be done demonstrates how the Government seek to put a human face on the scandal of their actions against poor and low-paid members of the community. The Guardian was right last month to say that the social fund must be regarded as the most shocking and cynical piece of so- called welfare machinery ever to have been put in place.
The strategy of the Government is to try to make the poor vanish. The Secretary of State should be called to account for presiding over his Department at a time of moral dereliction in what is happening to our people and over what the Government claim their intentions to be. The reality of what is going on in vast numbers of people's lives is positively surreal.
It is surreal to tell women on benefit, pensioners and single parents who are struggling to make their meagre incomes pay increased charges, such as the poll tax and rent increases, that the answer to their problem is to manage their incomes more sensibly.
It is surreal to tell unemployed women who enter training schemes in an effort to return to the paid labour market that the money they receive by way of grant must be directly deducted from their income support. It means them struggling to make ends meet at the same time as they are trying to be trained.
It is surreal for the Government to claim that it is right to freeze child benefit, and then to say that they are interested in the fate of women as they try to return to the paid labour market. Even those women in Avon who manage to return to work earn only 64 per cent. of the pay given to men in the same labour market.
I will give a few examples of case work, of which there are many hundreds, because they are the sort of cases about which I frequently write to the Minister. These examples show not only how people are unable to escape poverty but how they are being drawn positively into the poverty trap by the Government's meanness.
I cite the case of a couple who found themselves homeless and had to enter bed-and-breakfast accommodation. That cost them £112 a week. Their total income, including housing benefit, was £111. In other words, they did not have enough to pay for their bed-and-breakfast accommodation, let alone live. That is how surreal are the intentions of the Government.
Column 204Tell young people trapped in board-and- lodging accommodation how to manage on the £5 to £17 a week that they have left after they have paid their lodgings. Can the Government persuade them that their policies are designed to get them out of the poverty trap? The Government are confining them to the poverty trap.
Imagine the plight of people who are anxious to return to work but who need clothes or equipment to enable them to enter the paid labour market. Such people are now denied grant with which to buy specialist clothing or equipment. The Government do not understand what the poverty trap is about.
I invite the Government to explain their policies to a constituent of mine whose wife is suffering from Huntington's chorea. He gave up work to look after her some years ago. Her condition has deteriorated to such an extent that she has had to be admitted to a specialist private nursing home. No other nursing home would accept her. The cost of that nursing is £320 a week. The total amount that that family can claim from the Government is £275 a week, so there is a difference of £45 which that unemployed family must find each week. That husband and his 13-year-old daughter are trapped in a vicious poverty cycle. Would the Government tell them that they are being extravagant in their budgeting?
Mrs. Audrey Wise (Preston) : I have drawn the attention of the Minister to the plight of a constituent of mine, although I understand that there has been a change in the circumstances of the case since I raised the matter with him.
My constituent removed from institutional care his severely handicapped adult brother, having decided to look after him personally. I accept that he had no legal responsibility to do that. He did it out of love and family loyalty, thereby saving the state a great deal of money. He is given by the grateful state an income of £34.90. The severely handicapped brother is dependent entirely on benefit. Between them they have an income of about £100 a week. Would the Minister care for a severely mentally handicapped brother, if he had one, for £34.90 a week? Would he be grateful if he was then told by the Governmeent, "There will be another premium of £10 a week. You are lucky to be living under a Tory Government"? I intervene to tell that story because it is the sort of case to which my hon. Friend is referring so eloquently.
Ms. Primarolo : I entirely agree. That is yet another illustration of the fact that the Government's rhetoric is completely divorced from any understanding of what is happening in people's lives. A constituent has written to me complaining about the Government's strategy to help disabled people to retrain or return to full-time education. If someone is given a place on a full-time course, he is no longer regarded as ill, and therefore cannot qualify for any form of benefit. Education and training attract various kinds of maintenance funding, but that funding does not take account of the special living costs of the chronically ill and their families. The Government's famous report on the disabled, which has just been published, admits that the majority of disabled adults live in family units containing low earners trapped in poverty. If they have jobs, those jobs are poorly
Column 205paid. The study carried out by the Office of Population Censuses and Surveys does not make it clear whether low pay follows from disability or whether those in low-paid occupations are more likely to become disabled. The truth is probably a combination of the two : class inequality and the oppression of the poor combine to produce patterns of inequality and disadvantage. The Government are reinforcing those patterns, not challenging them, and they should be ashamed of themselves.
Mr. Tim Devlin (Stockton, South) : I shall be as brief as I can, but I must say at the outset that it is entirely unfair for Opposition Members to speak for so long and to allow such long interventions from other Opposition Members who have no intention of speaking. [ Hon. Members-- : "Get a move on."] The hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher) also took far too long to open the debate.
Yesterday a report was published by the Church of England attacking what it called the "injustice of urban poverty". The report observed :
"It is the corporate responsibility of the community to reflect the justice of God and it is the responsibility of the Church to remind the body politic of its obligation to do so, not simply in a carping, critical sense, but also in positive recognition".
Introducing the report, Bishop Butler of Willesden said that "he did not believe the situation to be as grave as four years ago, when the Faith in the Cities report was published, because the problems were now high on the Government's agenda."
That is in today's edition of The Daily Telegraph.
I came to the House in June 1987. On 12 September 1987, the Prime Minister visited my constituency to launch the inner-city programme from Teesside : £160 million was to be invested in Teesside, and in each of the other five second-generation urban development corporations. Since then, there has been a third generation, and a crop of mini-urban development corporations has ensued.
Most of the poverty about which Opposition Members profess to be so upset is to be found in our inner-city areas. The purpose of the inner-cities initiative was to invest in those deprived areas--such as the northern and eastern corners of my constituency, which are now covered by the Teesside development corporation. At the same time, the Government introduced major reforms in the social security system--changes in the employment benefits and regulations--and began to invest huge sums in inner-city housing.
In today's edition of The Daily Telegraph, next to the report of the Church of England's new initiative, is an article headed "£190 million extra to rescue decaying estates". The result of those endeavours has been a significant reduction in unemployment throughout the land. In my constituency, it is down from 7,109 to 4, 956, a fall of 44 per cent. Across the country, there was a fall of 25 per cent. in the inner cities last year. Government spending of £3.5 billion on the inner cities has been matched by spending of £55.6 billion on the social security budget as a whole, a real-terms increase of 36 per cent. since 1979.
Earlier in the debate, we heard some talk from the Liberal party--the right hon. Member for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale (Sir D. Steel) is not here now--about the measurement of poverty. I think that all hon. Members would find that task difficult. Certainly a
Column 206number of people--even in my constituency, in the inner part of Teesside--are, by any standards, living in poverty, and many are still living on benefits or low incomes. About one third of the population either receive income support, or have incomes only 40 per cent. above the income support rate. The problem is, however--as I would have said to the right hon. Member if he were here--that, if that is taken as the poverty line, every time benefits are increased to combat poverty the number of people below the line increases. According to the Labour party, however, the measurement of poverty must be relative rather than absolute. In 1976, the right hon. Member for Salford, East (Mr. Orme), then Minister of State for Social Services, said :
"Poverty is a relative matter, and the Government do not accept that a simple poverty line can be drawn."--[ Official Report, 26 October 1976 ; Vol. 918, c. 255.]
New Society also condemned the concept of absolute poverty in 1986.
Taking the relative view of poverty, Labour politicians now claim that the rich are getting richer and the poor getting poorer ; yet if we examine income levels, we find that in real terms they have grown at all levels. Nevertheless, let me say a word of caution to the Government. Between 1979 and 1985, the incomes of the poorest tenth of households rose by approximately 6 per cent. in real terms, and the average increase for the whole population was 9 per cent. In terms of living standards, however, the picture may be somewhat different--and here I sound a note of caution to Opposition Members before they condemn us for that earlier statistic.
Between 1981 and 1985, the poorest 10 per cent. improved their living standards by 8.3 per cent., while the figure for the whole population was only 6.4 per cent. In the north of England, where I come from, massive strides have been made. Although income levels are generally lower than in the south-east, living standards are generally higher : 10 years ago, hardly any households possessed videos, microwave ovens or home computers, whereas today one household in five has a home computer, one in three has a microwave and half have videos. Share ownership in the region has reached 13 per cent.
That picture of rising living standards across the board has passed a few people by. The Labour party need not crow as I acknowledge that, for I am every bit as concerned as other hon. Members to remedy the problem. People on half average earnings have experienced a significant increase in their take-home pay under the Conservative Government ; under Labour, it was actually cut.
Perhaps the solution is to integrate jobcentres with unemployment offices and to place them as near to their client population as possible ; that is the solution that I propose for Thornaby, in my constituency. Certainly we can have nothing but praise for the inner-cities initiative, which is transforming our region and the rougher parts of other regions and cities.
In my region, two issues concern me particularly : the plight of the elderly and the condition of the housing stock. As I said in an earlier intervention, I hear a good deal from pensioners about how little they have on which to live, and I have considerable sympathy for some. On average, however, pensioners' total net income grew by 23 per cent. above inflation between 1979 and 1986--twice as fast as
Column 207the growth in the incomes of the mass of the population, and by as much each year as in all five years of the last Labour Government. Pensioners tell me that they cannot keep up with price rises, and that I cannot tell them how well off they are. I would not pretend for a moment that they are wealthy ; next April, however, the single person's pension will increase to £46.90, and the couple's pension to £75.10. Moreover, 70 per cent. of those who are now retiring have some form of occupational pension. In October, the Government announced a package of measures costing £200 million a year to give additional help to pensioners on income support and housing benefit. During the speech of the hon. Member for Oldham, West, we debated very briefly the position in Europe. He conceded that his point about the better-off pensioners of Europe was not quite as well-founded as he had thought. Let me quote for his benefit the words of Dorothy Rhodes, the president of Pensioners' Voice :
"We have talked about the percentages of pensions in Europe, and I have been one who has spoken loudly in support of parity with Europe, but during the past year I have been to Pensioners Congresses in Italy and Greece and, having spoken at length to those who actually receive the Euro pensions and discovered that in many cases the actual cash received in relation to the cost of living is often lower than in the UK, I am revising my opinion ; for in no way can our Federation ask for an equality that would disadvantage our own people."
Of particular note is the extra carers' allowance for those looking after people who are ill and the earnings limit for those on invalid care allowance, which will be increased by 66 per cent. This, I believe, will go some way to offset the impact of what has been called the granny tax--the provision whereby no reduction in community charge is available for elderly relatives living at home. In my view, that point also needs some further attention from the Government. I was going to say something about housing stock in the north of England, but I shall leave that for a housing debate. What I can say is that the Opposition have sought to mislead the House, and I urge hon. Members to support the amendment.
Ms. Clare Short (Birmingham, Ladywood) : In the limited time available, it will be difficult to answer some of the grossly misleading statements that have been made by the Secretary of State and by other hon. Members speaking in support of the Government. I know that the Secretary of State is a very intelligent man, so I assume that what he did was absolutely deliberate. That makes it less honourable than the course taken by some of his hon. Friends, who read Central Office handouts and believe all the fabricated statistics that are fed out. Indeed, I have a copy of such a handout, so I recognise large parts of the speech that the hon. Member for Stockton, South (Mr. Devlin) has just made.
The Secretary of State claimed that we have had unusually high economic growth under this Government. That is absolutely false. I have here a table showing economic growth since 1948--year by year, cumulatively, and in graph form. The table shows that under this Government the average economic growth has been 2.2 per cent.--less than the growth under many previous
Column 208Governments. What the Government say about there having been an economic miracle is just not true. It is false, deceitful, and dishonest. These statistics from the House of Commons Library, which we all accept, show it to be so. I do not know why, in a debate on poverty, the Secretary of State should claim to have had such enormous economic growth. If he lives in our society, he must know that many people are now really struggling. Indeed, if we had had the economic miracle that the Secretary of State claims we have had, it would be even more shameful that that should be so.
The Secretary of State went on to claim that all is well, and that the Government have been deeply generous and caring. It is not so. Our country is more deeply divided and more unequal than it has been at any time since the second world war, and the people who live in the country understand that. In response to every poll and every survey of British social attitudes, they say that Britain is now too deeply divided, that they are against that, and that they want to see the division and the inequality reversed.
We have too many pensioners struggling to make their money last week by week. I meet many of them at my advice bureaux and as I go around Birmingham. People come up to me on the street and say, "I have managed all these years, but I am finding it really difficult now." Do the Secretary of State and his hon. Friends live in the society that we live in? Do they talk to people who have to live on state benefits? They say that twice the Labour Government failed to pay the Christmas bonus, yet they have deliberately changed the uprating of pensions so that a single pensioner gets £13 less every week, and a couple £20-odd less. Are they not ashamed to play those games? The Secretary of State should be ashamed of himself. This is not a game about Christmas bonuses of long ago, before people like me were elected to this House. If bonuses were cancelled, that is regrettable, but a reduction of £13 or £20 a week for people who are finding life difficult--people, indeed, who cannot manage--is an absolute outrage. But the Government did this deliberately. The funds were available, but money has been taken away from the worst-off pensioners in order to give tax cuts to the richest people. And the Secretary of State belongs to a Government who have done that deliberately.
We have a record number of people on low pay. The Government have introduced a whole series of measures deliberately to encourage people to do low-paid work. They have even given employers subsidies conditional on wages being low. If there were more time, I could go through the list of measures. Indeed, the Government have deliberately incited low-paid work. They have pushed many citizens who want the pride and dignity of work into living in poverty and having to claim benefits. People do not like it, and it is economically inefficient. It means that we, the taxpayers--and increasingly the bulk of tax is paid by lower paid workers--are subsidising the most inefficient employers--employers who pay low wages, who do not train, who do not invest, and who have a high rate of labour turnover. It is unjust, it is unequal, it deprives people of the dignity of going to work, and it is economically inefficient. It is not the way to build a modern, high-pay, high-skill economy. It is a disaster for the lives of people, and it is a disaster for the British economy.
We are told that, suddenly, the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State are concerned about lone parents. That is difficult to believe. Big poverty traps have been built for
Column 209lone parents by the cumulative effect of this Government's benefit changes. We have a higher proportion of lone parents relying on benefits than ever before. The Government have deliberately brought that about. They are eroding the value of child benefit--the one non-means-tested benefit that helps people such as lone parents to climb off benefits and into work. They are forced to rely on means-tested benefit.
What other change have the Government made? It used to be possible for a lone parent working part time to claim benefit to top up income and to have the cost of child care taken into account--a step out of one parenthood into part-time work, hopefully enabling the parent, as the children get older, to move into full-time work and independence, and not to have to rely on benefit. But the Government have abolished that. They have made that impossible. They have created poverty traps, forcing lone parents into reliance on benefits. So I fear that all this talk of encouraging fathers to maintain their children--and, of course, I agree completely with that principle--is not about caring for those children or those families ; it is about saving even more money on the benefit bill. It is as cynical as that. That is the Government's intention.
These problems of inequality and poverty are not an accident ; they are the deliberate result of Government policy. One of the major objectives of Government policy was to increase incentives. They said so very clearly. This meant that the rich could keep more of their income, and those less well off--always a contradiction that we pointed out--had to be squeezed harder, had to be given an incentive to work harder in order to become better off. The Government set about systematically changing the benefit and taxation system in order to move money from those with less to those with more. The figures are absolutely clear. I have quoted them before, but it is important to the House and to the country to base debates such as this on the truth rather than on fabricated statistics that seek deliberately to mislead. Let me quote from Hills--and I invite any hon. Member to crawl over these statistics in detail. Since 1979 "the cuts in direct taxes have been entirely paid for by cuts in the generosity of benefits. Overall, the bottom 60 per cent. of the income distribution has lost, while the top 30 per cent.--especially the top 10 per cent.--has gained The losses for the bottom 50 per cent. average out at nearly £8.50 per family while the top 10 per cent. have gained nearly £40 per family. Overall, the bottom half of the population has lost £6.6 billion"--
£6.6 billion has been deliberately taken away from them, producing the kind of poverty problems about which we have been talking.-- "of which £5.6 billion has gone to the top 10 per cent. ; indeed, £4.8 billion has gone to the top 5 per cent."
As the right hon. Member for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale (Sir D. Steel) said, the poll tax will make the position much worse. The statistics will become even more gross.
Let us not pretend that any Conservative Member thinks that any of the poverty in this country is regrettable. Britain is the 15th richest country in the world. If we want to be fair, we have the capacity to ensure that all our people are cared for and can live a decent life in a fair society. The Government have deliberately made things more unequal, taken money away from pensioners and encouraged low pay ; then they have pretended that that is not so. I have no respect for that attitude.
Column 210The Government stood for monetarism, or Thatcherism, which meant increased inequality which they claimed would increase incentives, plus the mumbo-jumbo, which has been proved false, about M0, M3 and the medium-term financial strategy, which now happily has been forgotten with the resignation of the former Chancellor. The Secretary of State should be honest and speak the truth. He is part of a Government who have deliberately made many of our people much poorer and who have increased poverty to give enormous tax handouts to some of the richest people. The right hon. Gentleman is responsible for that policy. The British people do not like it, and we do not like it, which is why we are increasingly confident that we will soon have a Labour Government. We will implement the policies in our policy review, creating fairness and pathways out of poverty. That will mean a better Britain and a fairer future.
Mr. Corbyn : On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Tonight, 11, 000 people will sleep on the streets of London in cardboard boxes around the National theatre. Is it in order for the House to confine a debate on the crisis of poverty and homelessness to rather less than two hours in order to spend three hours discussing football? I am sure that you agree, Sir, that the House should find ways to spend more time discussing the crisis of poverty rather than the issue of football which, although significant, has no importance compared with the poverty of the people of Britain.
The Minister for Social Security (Mr. Nicholas Scott) : The subjects for debate and the time allocated to them on Opposition days are matters for the Opposition Front Bench. If the Opposition shared the view of the hon. Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn), they could have spent a whole day on this subject, and we would have welcomed it.
On Second Reading of the Social Security Bill, I said that, as society changes, social security systems must change to reflect those changes. It is no secret that we believe that, in the immediate past, today and in the future, the overall aim should be increasingly to target--I prefer the word "focus"--extra resources on those who really need the most help. To do that, we undertake a range of monitoring exercises to establish the facts, rather than listen to the type of rhetoric that we have heard from the Opposition today.
We have monitored the system carefully and have made adjustments, as anyone who looks at it in a fair-minded way would have to recognise. We conduct research, collect statistics, analyse the cases of Members of Parliament and look at an endless flow of articles, books, programmes and
Column 211so on--and, not least, we listen to the House on this issue. [Interruption.] We fine-tune the system. We try to establish those parts of the social security system where the shoe pinches unduly and make adjustments to it. We have helped families on low incomes, whether in or out of work. We have adjusted the system to concentrate extra help on the poorest elderly and disabled pensioners. We have changed the capital limit on housing benefit. We have done a number of things because we have listened to debates in the House and evidence from outside and have been prepared to fine-tune the system.
Mr. Field : I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. Everyone is pleased at the small changes that the Government have made. The Opposition repeatedly make the case that the basic benefits are inadequate. Will the Government act on that matter?
Mr. Scott : In real terms, benefits have been improved--perhaps just a little--under the Government. [Interruption.] All right, but benefits are certainly better than they were under the Labour Government. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said, coverage has increased massively, which means that those on benefit as a whole have had a substantial increase in resources under this Government.
We have listened carefully to the more dispassionate and constructive contributions to the debate. We will obviously weigh all the evidence and the contributions in the balance when we decide priorities. The further that those on the Opposition Front Bench get from having experienced the responsibilities of government, the more they come to fall under the magic wand syndrome--the idea that, somehow, when Labour Members return to office, they will be able to find resources to make improvements across a range of issues. Now that Labour Members are perhaps approaching the halfway mark in their period of opposition, they are even further away from reality than normal. There are no magic wands in government. Government is about priorities and hard choices. We have made those choices, and will continue to do so, based on real priorities which we have established.
The hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher) asked about the publication of official statistics on living standards over the past five years and asked when we expected to publish the next edition. We will publish them in the near future, but the Social Services Select Committee has asked us to study the possibilities of considering at the same time publishing comparative data on earlier years, and we are looking into those possibilities. We certainly have no intention of delaying publication of the series on average household incomes. The hon. Member for Oldham, West made comparisons between EC countries which were highly misleading. There are significant differences in the structures of pensions throughout the European Community, as he well knows. In theory, it may appear that other states' retirement pensions are higher than ours,