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Mr. Clifton-Brown : Does my hon. Friend agree that people should be able to earn whatever is considered reasonable in the circumstances provided that their companies are successful, but that what are not acceptable are large severance payments where the companies under their management have actually declined ?
Mr. Burt : My hon. Friend puts the point well and it is obvious that his sentiments are shared by many of our colleagues. It says a little more about the market system than does the case raised. Some people feel that the system has its boundaries.
At the beginning of my remarks, I said that I hoped I cared and felt as strongly about these issues as does any Opposition Member. How would I respond to the difficulties raised by the hon. Members for Gateshead, East and for Garscadden ? Recognising the diversity of human talent and ability, I believe that it is right for societies to develop so that talent and ability are used for the good of all. A proper system of reward for endeavour which benefits the whole of society inevitably means that people are rewarded differently. Therefore, a society that must be unequal in that sense is acceptable provided that, first, all people have the opportunity to take part in that society. There will be occasions on which Government intervention is necessary to ensure that those opportunities are provided. Secondly, all people should be able to participate in the increasing wealth of society, even if not equally. I am offended if the latter does not happen.
I believe in and support the sort of policies that the Government follow because we are determined to ensure that issues such as persistent unemployment, which deny people the opportunity to participate, are seriously and
Column 615genuinely tackled. It is because the Government's policies can tackle matters in the way that I have described that I believe we can do the job better than the Opposition could.
Let us consider what the Government have done and how they have tackled some of the important issues that are symptomatic of the problems raised by the hon. Member for Gateshead, East. Many of the income statistics quoted today reflect the damaging effects of the recession and, above all, the rise in unemployment. However, that is not a British phenomenon ; it occurs in all OECD countries. Who is coming out best ? Who is working hardest to overcome the problems ? Our Government's economic policies are delivering growth and low inflation. Unemployment has fallen by more than 300,000 since 1992 and continues on a downward trend. Inflation is at a 25-year low. Interest rates have halved since 1990, helping industry and providing an extra £37 a week for the average mortgage-holder. We have created a flexible labour market.
Much was said about wages. The hon. Member for Rotherham mentioned the excellent speech of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Employment. He would have no difficulty in lining me up on his side on that issue. At the same conference, Howard Davies, director general of the Confederation of British Industry, was asked to go through the issues that he felt were crucial to creating full employment and, of course, he tackled wages, saying :
"In the number three slot, the graveyard of English batsmen over the years, and perhaps the graveyard of this point, I put wages. As William Brown says hopes of full employment . . . are forlorn unless labour costs per unit of output can be kept in line with those of our competitors'. And even now, wages are rising more rapidly here than in most other developed economies."
The OECD also, crucially, raised wage flexibility.
I say to the hon. Member for Gateshead, East that that poses her party more problems than it poses us. We recognise that jobs count and that having a job is better than not having one. We recognise that, at difficult times, jobs might be created offering low wages as a lead on to something else. None of us wants a perpetual, low-wage economy--that is not Britain's future--but, if we are to fight off foreign competition and build a better society in which more people have a part, it is essential that the wage and job structure remains flexible to market needs. The sort of equality and help that the hon. Lady wants at the lower end cannot be produced artificially. It will be produced only by industries staying in business, doing better and giving more rewards to all their employees.
Mr. MacShane : I am grateful to the Under-Secretary for giving way. I agree with Howard Davies's statement, which he repeated at the Trades Union Congress conference on Tuesday. It was central to the argument that I advanced. Although wages from full-time employment in Britain in the 1980s rose far more dramatically than in other OECD countries, our unit labour costs rose far more significantly than those of our main industrial competitors. Baroness Thatcher introduced free collective bargaining, and, in the absence of pay policy, inequalities have risen dramatically.
Mr. Burt : I am not particularly sure what line the hon. Gentleman would like me to go down. I am not sure whether he is arguing for pay policy.
Mr. MacShane indicated assent .
Mr. Burt : There we are. We are beginning to build some planks of Labour's next election manifesto. Pay policy is back and I wait with bated breath for my long-time colleague, the hon. Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn), to give his version of the manifesto and to tell me how many votes he will give the hon. Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair) in the forthcoming election.
Artificial constraints on labour markets will not provide the sort of society that hon. Members want. The OECD highlighted the flexible labour market being pursued by Britain as one of the key policies that would contribute to growth in wealth in the next 20 or 30 years. We have sought to improve wage flexibility, to strike a balance between job security and the pressures of the market and to move from passive income support to more active measures to help unemployment. Those matters are particularly within my remit and touch on some of the comments of the hon. Member for Garscadden, who looked for some chinks of lights from me on how the Government might develop. One sees more chinks of light on what our policy might be in The Sunday Times than we ever get from the Opposition of what they might do. It is best to consider what we have done in the past two or three years in the benefit system to try to create the bridge between dependency on benefits and getting back to work. That is proving to be a key issue. I have noticed in my two years in this job that social security systems around the western developed world have been changing. They are no longer regarded in isolation or in relation to what they do to protect the poor at a particular time, but are considered increasingly in the light of how they bring people back into the economy and how they ensure that people do not remain excluded--a term whose use I fully understand in this context --from the rest of society. If the benefit net is something into which people sink and out of which they have difficulty in climbing to get back into work, we all have problems. It has been recognised in various countries, whether they have right or left-of-centre Governments, that it is a problem to be tackled. It has been part of our job in the past few years to tackle it head on, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has advocated such action.
A key objective of social security policy is now therefore to ensure that there is always a financial incentive to move into employment and that the transition from dependency on state benefits to financial independence is as smooth as possible. Maintaining work incentives in the benefits system is very much a question of achieving the right balance between providing for the most needy while not removing the financial incentive to work and between providing support for those working on low wages while also seeking to reduce dependency on benefits.
Our policies in recent years have been aimed at maintaining the correct balance. Before 1988, we reckoned that around 60,000 people were no better off in work than on income support--they were caught in the unemployment trap. The reforms and restructuring that we carried out then have ensured that almost everyone gets a return from work. Since then, we have introduced a number of further measures to tackle this problem, including the restructuring of benefits paid to the unemployed and low-paid, especially those families with children. The cornerstone of those measures was the introduction of family credit. I regret the hon. Lady's reference to it, because it does not
Column 617depress wages. It is not paid to everyone, but only to those with families. It now helps to boost the incomes of more than 500,000 working families with an average award of £47 per week. Recent independent research showed that couples in work with family credit were on average £18 a week better off than when out of work, and lone parents were £30 a week better off.
However, not everyone is able or in a position to take up work. That is why the Government have spent millions of pounds protecting the incomes of the most vulnerable. Since the 1988 reforms, extra help worth more than £1 billion a year has been provided to low-income families with children and pensioners. Indeed, a typical unemployed family with children receiving income support has seen a real-terms increase of nearly 24 per cent. since 1979.
Ms Quin : The Minister said that he wishes to see a reduction in dependence on benefits, especially among people in work, but how does he envisage that happening, given the downward pressure on wages to which I referred ? Some wages are as low as £1.85 an hour or even £1.40 an hour for security guards, for example. How does he believe that people in those circumstances can lessen their dependence on benefits ?
Mr. Burt : The hon. Lady makes a fair point, but how are we to respond ? If we were to remove family credit, for example, in those circumstances, I do not believe that such firms would suddenly offer higher wages. Firms will pay only what they regard as sensible, according to the sort of work in which they are involved. If we continually increase benefit levels and make it more difficult for people to move into even low-paid work, they become stuck. Improving benefit levels does not help with that problem.
Wages will rise as unemployment continues to fall and employers realise that in order to attract people to work they must pay proper wages. It would be a dereliction of our duty if we sought artificially to withdraw support and protection from people who need it. We find that family credit is working as a bridge to get people back to work. I did not hear an answer from the hon. Lady to that problem, and I do not believe that the answer that I suspect that she would favour--the introduction of a minimum wage-- would do the job. In conclusion, I should like to widen the debate slightly, as one or two hon. Members tried to do. Equality in British society is not merely a question of facts and figures and economics, although they are important. Governments must not stifle opportunity. To operate otherwise would mean imposing state controls and reducing choice which, ultimately, results in a levelling down of performance. Wherever there have been societies which have tried that approach--perhaps the hon. Member for Islington, North will be able to enlighten me if I am wrong-- they have failed.
The report by the Institute for Fiscal Studies, which is cited in the motion, makes some especially telling points about the impact of pay policy in the 1960s and 1970s on reducing growth.
How do we encourage the policies that will foster equality of opportunity ? Education is one method. In the early 1980s, there was growing recognition that while the brightest of our youngsters were able to achieve more than those on the continent and in the United States, our average
Column 618and below-average children were not keeping pace with their European and world counterparts. This Government were determined to address that. We instituted the reforms in education which are designed to improve the abilities of all our youngsters and to help them to compete. What chance would there be of equal opportunity if those attempts had not been made ?
We should remember that many of the problems could be laid at the door of the reforms of education in the 1960s when there was no measurement of what was actually achieved by pupils and thus a slow sliding down of the educational attainment of our pupils was accepted. The number of 15-year- olds who achieve five or more GCSEs increased by a quarter between 1989 and 1993. The number of 17-year-olds achieving two or more A-levels has almost doubled since 1980. A record 70 per cent. of 16-year-olds go on to further education compared with 27 per cent. in 1979. We all know what the expansion of higher education has been under this Government. The hon. Member for Rotherham mentioned, fairly casually, that the OECD report said that we now had as many people in higher education as other countries in Europe. In 1979, we definitely did not have. We were well behind and it is this Government who have addressed that. That is real equality of opportunity.
The education reforms have done well because, we understand, the hon. Member for Sedgefield is taking a keen interest in one of the grant- maintained schools. That must be good news. To the hon. Gentleman's great credit, he has also commented favourably on a number of reforms introduced by the Government.
When the right hon. Member for Islwyn (Mr. Kinnock) was leader of the Labour party, I always remember his being asked during an election campaign whether there was anything that the Conservatives and Margaret Thatcher had done that he admired. He said no. To his credit, the future new leader of the Labour party, the hon. Member for Sedgefield, has been honest enough to say yes, there are things that even he thinks are right. We think that there are a lot more. At least politics in this country is moving on if some Opposition Members recognise that changes have taken place for the good, produced by this Government. I am pleased by that.
One of the other things in which equality comes in firmly, which we have done right, but which was fiercely resisted by the Opposition, is the reform of trade union law. What equality was there when people stood in the car park and put their hands up to go out on strike ? People who did not were watched, known, seen and handbagged with a bag of stones. We ensured that there were individual postal ballots which enabled the individual trade unionist to have as much power as the trade union leader. That is equality. Who fought for that ? It was the Conservatives, not the Opposition.
It would be nice if the reform had been taken still further and if each Labour Member used one vote in the forthcoming Labour leadership battle. How many votes do they have ? There is equality for some, but not for others. We have Jeremy "Five Votes" Corbyn and Denis "Four Votes" MacShane. That is not equality.
Mr. Dewar : That is a stupid point.
Mr. Burt : The hon. Member for Garscadden says that it is a stupid point. It is not. I reckon that if we are talking about equal societies, what is sauce for the goose is sauce
Column 619for the gander. The hon. Member for Pontypridd (Dr. Howells) has said that he feels that it is fair to use one vote. It would do much more for Opposition Members to espouse such views than to go on at us about inequality.
Mr. Dewar : I would be rather more impressed by the Minister's remarks if there were a wider franchise for the leadership of the Conservative party. At least we have enfranchised literally millions of people who support, and who are actively involved in, the Labour movement. The Conservative party has taken no such steps. Yes, it is possible that some people have more than one vote, but at least we have a democracy, unlike the Conservative party.
Mr. Burt : Like the Labour party, we have an electoral college. In our electoral college, there is one vote for each Member. That seems pretty democratic to me.
The debate has been extremely good. In its most serious moments, we have recognised that we deal with problems in our constituencies which worry us all and to which society, over the past 100 years, has not found the answer. We have not found the answer to the problem of how, as wealth increases for the majority, we ensure that some people do not miss out for a whole variety of reasons. This Government have sought, previous Governments have sought and future Governments will seek ways in which to ensure that everyone is included in society. We will keep working on that.
Most crucially, the Labour party has tried to use selective figures from a number of sources to paint a too-depressing picture of a divided British society. The facts do not support its pessimistic view. Through policies adopted by this Government, the vast majority of people have seen their incomes rise, the less well-off have shared in that prosperity and the vulnerable have been protected. That must remain the aim of a Conservative Government : to see as many as possible in work ; to protect those who cannot ; to strengthen individuals so that they are better able voluntarily to give their time to build communities ; to develop an economy that is determined to recognise the real world--not hide from it--and to prepare their people through training and education properly and honestly for that world. Any arrogance or conceit that goes with wealth is not part of that philosophy, for we are all equal in the sight of God, nor is any artificial bar to the legitimate aspirations of families and individuals to prosper. It is because there are better answers to the problems illustrated by the motion of the hon. Member for Gateshead, East that, although I listened to her argument with interest, I failed to be convinced by it.
Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) : The Group of Seven industrial leaders are meeting today and over the next few days in Naples and I should like to think, although I suspect that it is a faint hope, that they will leave the conference hall for an hour or two to visit the slums of Naples, to see what inequality is about in what is supposed to be a successful western European economy. I also hope that, in their deliberations, they will think about some of the effects on the poorest people in other parts of the world of the policies pursued by a very small number of industrial countries--the way in which poverty is visited on sub-Saharan Africa by the GATT deal and the imposition of poverty wages on countries th
Column 620There are other areas of inequality--not only in health or housing, but in education and expectations. Anyone who goes, as I do, around schools often, will meet children of eight, nine, 10, 11 and 12 years old who are full of optimism, hope, ideas and expectations. They want to be doctors, lawyers, vets, meteorologists, physicists, engine drivers, bricklayers or carpenters--they want to do all sorts of things in their lives. In other words, they want to achieve. Similarly, their parents want them to achieve. When these youngsters reach the age of 14, 15 or 16, they find themselves living in a community where at least a fifth of the working population is registered as unemployed and where many others are not even allowed to be so registered. It is then that the sense of despair and hopelessness begins to set in.
The ideas are formed that perhaps there will not be a job, that perhaps they will not be able to afford to receive a university or polytechnic education, that perhaps that sort of life will not be available for them. There starts the spiral of decline and despair. That is followed by a rise in crime
Column 621generally, dru
How would Conservative Members feel if they had to suffer that indignity after they had given 20 years' service to a local authority or health service ? It is an indignity. It is a disgrace. A disgusting process is being implemented. Incentives for the rich, sticks for the poor. That is the argument that Conservatives advance.
The Government tell us that high economic growth is achieved through a process of inequality. There is no evidence anywhere to sustain that argument. In Britain, employers pay less in tax and social contributions than most other employers in Europe. Wage levels are lower than those in most other countries in Europe and unemployment is high and rising.
Mr. Roger Evans : It is lower here than in most other European countries.
Mr. Corbyn : With 25-plus changes in the method of calculation of unemployment statistics, I am unsure
Column 622whether unemployment is higher or lower here than in other European countries. There is no common base for the measurement of unemployment.
I do know, however, that the attacks on trade unions, compulsory competitive tendering and the abolition of wages councils, along with the removal of any sort of wage protection and the introduction by the Prime Minister, when he was a Minister at the Department of Social Security, of the actively-seeking-work formula have meant that many people are forced to work in low-paid jobs. We know that 40 per cent. of the work force is now in either short-term contracts or in part-time jobs.
We do not live in a particularly health society. The knock-on effect of that is the current level of crime, misery, hopelessness and suicides. There have been 1 million recorded crimes so far this year in London alone. While I recognise that that is not all due to unemployment and to poverty, there is a cause and an effect. There is a link and it is about time that some people recognised that. I find it baffling when the right argues that we can no longer afford the welfare state or to sustain the present level of state old age pension. In an attempt to unbaffle myself, I read an article the other day by the president of the Adam Smith Institute, a man who glories in the name of Dr. Madsen Pirie. The article was fascinating. Dr. Pirie writes quite well. He can spell and his grammar is excellent. The former Prime Minister would be proud of him. With regard to the w
One might describe that strategy as successful if one believes in the objective behind it. As my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar) said, in the past 15 years the value of the state pension has fallen from more than 20 per cent. of average earnings to 15 per cent. According to the Minister, it will be at a nugatory level by the turn of the century. I assume that he means it will be below 10 per cent.
That drop has occurred because of the break with earnings that occurred in the 1980s and the rigging of the retail prices index. I wish that the previous Labour Government had achieved more on pensions. I wish that they had increased pensions much more. However, the Labour Government passed the 1975 legislation, according to which the state old age pension was to be linked to prices or earnings, whichever rose by the larger amount in that particular year. That is how the 1975 legislation was worded. It was not worded in the way described earlier. However, in his first Budget after the general election in 1979, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Lord Howe, described breaking that link as his greatest achievement. It is claimed that average pensioner income has increased by up to 38 per cent. The figure seems to increase by 1 per cent. whenever the Minister makes a speech. It used to be 33 per cent., but it has increased to 38 per cent.
Column 623in only
We must now consider what is happening to the welfare state. The Government suddenly say, I do not know on what basis, that we can no longer afford the present level of the welfare state, and that the economy is held back because of it. Such thinking was behind opposition to the social chapter, and it is that, in effect, we must privatise welfare by encouraging people to take out private insurance and private pension schemes and have two tiers of welfare. The arguments that the Government use now about not being able to afford welfare are exactly the same as their predecessors used against the introduction of the state old-age pension in 1908, and they were probably used in opposition to the Poor Law before that. They were certainly used against the universal welfare state of the late 1940s. According to the Government's very own publication entitled "Containing the cost of social security--the international context", social protection expenditure by Britain is nowhere near the highest in Europe. There are much higher levels in Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Germany. If we examine the sources of contributions to soc
Column 624Housing inequalities are becoming worse. Various bits of housing legislation are designed not to increase access to housing but to reduce it. More and more people now live in ghettos of very poor quality housing from which there is no possible escape. We also have an economic strategy which apparently is that if it is making money, it is probably all right, never mind the quality or what it is doing. Such thinking led to the de-industrialisation of many areas of this country.
I hope that, instead of that, we can look forward to saying that we want to live in a society where all are equal. I make no bones about that. I should like to see much higher levels of taxation for the very rich in our society. They have had an easy ride for the past 15 years. I should like a society where not as many people did not have to pay tax because they were too poor to pay it, as at present. I
Column 625[Mr. Corbyn
One of the most poisoned political ideas of the 20th century has been the concept that the state has a right to enforce equality of income or equality of wealth. Before the hon. Member for Gateshead, East (Ms Quin), who introduced the topic with charm and effectiveness, wonders why I put that so strongly, I shall tell her. No doubt she would regard the inquisition as something to do with a
Mr. Evans : My hon. Friend is right. Those would be the inexorable consequences of such a foolish and short-sighted policy--a policy which Labour Governments have pursued ever since they have had the opportunity to pursue them. We have the spectacular consequence that the tax havens of this world, which are nice, respectable and rich and all enjoy the protection of the British Crown and the rule of British law--I think of places from Hong Kong to the Channel islands--have thrived and prospered on minimal top tax rates. I can tell the hon. Member for Islington, North, who did not seem to be aware of the wealth of learning that has now been made clear, that some people in America and Japan are concerned at the rise of the Pacific rim countries, where, for example, in Hong Kong, Singapore and South Korea, top tax rates are much more favourable for enterprise than in Japan and certainly in Germany.
The gaping gap in the debate on the Opposition Benches is in any understanding of where wealth comes from. It apparently grows on the trees of the garden of Eden. They say that there should be more jobs, but doing what and for what purpose ? Of course everyone wants to be rich or to have a well-paid job, but how does one get such a job ? Who provides one ? It is not the British state. It is not somehow the Workers International. It is not the trades union movement. It is individual businesses, which stay in business only so long as they provide goods and services which someone in the world is prepared to buy at a price.
If one puts up the price of something, be it a consumer durable or the price of labour, there is less money to be
Column 627spent and people buy less. The British work force has rightly had a noble tradition of valuing itself extremely expensively. That is part of the engine of driving up average earnings, but it has a social cost. It prices a section of the community out of labour. The hon. Member for Islington, North seemed to think that everyone should be paid exactly the same. That was the only socialist logic that I could discern from his description of the uncertainties of being a cemetery keeper or the managing director of a large company. If they are not to be paid the same, who is to decide what each should be paid unless it is the free market and the choice of the community ? It is a community decision, whether people buy more of this or pay for less of that. That is what freedom is all about.
It is ironic that the hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane) should have raised this particular argument. I have a copy, which I much enjoyed in childhood, of Newnes "Children's Encyclopedia of the World". It contained a graphic illustration of the eclipse of the sun of 1921 or 1922--I forget which. It depicted the eclipse as a glorious ray of sunshine across a section of northern England which it could properly describe as the richest place on the face of the earth. It was once the richest place on the face of the earth. The brilliance and success of the textile industry at that time, which was a result of enterprise, initiative and technical advance, have now been wasted. Some businesses prosper, others do not.
The motion is based on a political fallacy--the idea that the British state should control its subjects in such a way that equality would be the end. It will not work.
Ms Quin : Where is that in the motion ?
Mr. Evans : The motion reads :
"To call attention to inequalities in the United Kingdom". The hon. Lady should be drawing attention to poverty, welfare and all the important aspects of this debate that my hon. Friend the Minister and, in fairness, the Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for Garscadden, dealt with.
Through the wording of her motion, the hon. Member for Gateshead, East interjected into a serious discussion of welfare matters some left-wing political nonsense about inequalities of income and wealth. She criticised the 40 per cent. top tax rate and that is why I am criticising the motion and why I say that it would not work. Happily, we do not live in a world where one can impose socialism in one country. We live in a freer world, where trade moves around and where people can buy their goods from Singapore or South Korea and buy refrigerators from Italy. That is why such goods are cheaper than they were in the 1950s by substantial amounts in real terms.
Ms Quin : The hon. Gentleman seems to claim that I am not in favour of free trade. I defy him to find anything in my motion that is against free trade.
Mr. Evans : Of course there is nothing in the motion that is against free trade, but it is the logical consequence of the hon. Lady's argument that this place should be concerned about income equalities at the top. If she is right, presumably we have to do something about it. She is presumably suggesting that the British legislature should increase tax rates for those on higher incomes. I am simply pointing out that in a free world, where there is free trade, and as part of a European Union, which increasingly has a single market, the British Government have happily lost the power to impose socialism in one country.
Column 628Although the motion has drawn attention to some serious matters, which the hon. Member for Garscadden certainly discussed, a fundamental political error of a very dangerous variety is at its heart.
Mr. Stephen Timms (Newham, North-East) : I am grateful for the opportunity to take part in this debate, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and welcome the initiative taken by my hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead, East (Ms Quin) in causing it to happen.
I apologise for being unable to be here at the start of the debate, but I wish to introduce some information from my constituency, the London borough of Newham, where I had the privilege to be leader of the local authority for four years, until a couple of months ago. In Newham, we suffer from poverty and the effects of inequality to a severe degree. The Department of the Environment's local conditions index, which was published earlier this year, placed Newham as the local authority area suffering from the highest urban deprivation. The local authority commissioned a report entitled, "Poverty on your doorstep" which was a poverty profile for the London borough of Newham and was published in March this year. I shall draw attention to some of its findings.
The research showed, not surprisingly, that the problems of poverty are closely linked with high unemployment. Between May 1990 and November 1993, there was a 72 per cent. increase in the number of unemployed people claiming income support in the borough of Newham. In November 1993, the official unemployment rate was more than 20 per cent.--a total of nearly 20,000 people registered as unemployed--which is 55 per cent. higher than the rate for Greater London and more than twice the rate for the south-east and the whole of the United Kingdom.
According to the 1991 census, 31 per cent. of the 16 to 24-year-olds were unemployed, so unemployment was particularly focused on that age group. Since 1991, the official unemployment rate has increased considerably. Members of the Asian, African, Afro-Caribbean and other ethnic groups in Newham suffer higher unemployment than the average for the community, which is a particular problem in east London.
Household incomes in Newham are considerably lower than for the capital as a whole. Fifty-five per cent. of gross annual household incomes were below £10,000, compared with only 40 per cent. for the rest of London. In November 1993, 47,800 people were claiming income support, and 37 per cent. of Newham children were entitled to free school meals in January 1993. The borough had 9,000 overcrowded households--twice the London average.
What do the Government think about inequalities and poverty on that scale ? I believe that the view is held that they are a good thing because they drive people to work harder and drive the economy. Is that the view of Conservative Members ? Are we being told that inequalities and poverty are a statistical error and do not really exist, because the people on lowest incomes are really chartered accountants ? Are we to believe that the figures in the Newham, IFS and other reports are statistical flukes ? Or are inequalities and poverty something which the Government want to change ?
Column 629Is it Government policy that the gap between the richest and poorest in society should stop widening ? Having listened to several speeches from Conservative Members, I have not heard those questions answered.
The Minister suggested that there is not a problem with poverty because the people who show up in surveys as being poor own video recorders and microwaves. The clearest refutation of that argument are investigations into the health of the poorest. The Newham poverty profile showed that 47 per cent. of children with long-term illnesses live in households where no one is in employment. That which we describe as poverty translates into poor health among not just the unemployed head of the household but his or her children. That is the clearest indication of real suffering and measurable poor health among members of the community who endure poverty and are the victims of inequalities.
The first step is to make it an explicit Government objective to narrow the gap between the richest and poorest and not allow it to widen. Are the Government prepared to acknowledge that policy objective ? If so, we can move forward, to discuss how that objective may be achieved. I welcome the change of heart among Government Members in respect of full employment, which now appears to be an explicit and realistic policy objective. For many years, we were told that it was not. I hope that reducing inequalities will also be a Government objective--not their sole objective but part of the Government's intentions.
I enjoyed the Minister's speech. He drew attention to the Government's achievements in education and suggested that the introduction of the grant- maintained system would contribute to a reduction in inequality. I strongly disagree with that view and point the hon. Gentleman towards the example of Stratford school in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks). There is no doubt that the granting of grant-maintained status has led to a radical fall in standards, to the extent that that school's level of GCSE achievement last summer was the lowest of any school in London. When the school was maintained by the local authority, it had a much higher level of achievement.
I accept that that example might be extreme, but it clearly shows why the school should not have been given grant-maintained status. Indeed, it should have been closed, as the local authority wished, to meet the Government's objective of removing surplus places. Instead, there will be significant reduction in life chances for a large number of the pupils at that school who otherwise would have been pupils at other Newham schools with much higher levels of achievement.
I endorse what my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn) said about his experience of large numbers of bright young people with enormous potential, optimistic and looking forward to the future, reaching their middle teens and seeing no opportunities ahead, losing their optimism and no longer looking forward to the future. That is a terrible indictment of Government policy over the past 15 years.
It should be a specific policy objective that the gap between the richest and the poorest should be narrowed, or at least should not be allowed to widen, as it has done inexorably over the past 15 years. Full employment should also be a policy objective. Until job opportunities are
Column 630provided, people will not be able to find a way out of poverty. There should be a minimum wage so that those in work can live at a decent standard.
Taking a parochial view, I must stress that east London needs investment. The local authority in Newham has developed partnerships with the Government and the private sector to work for the regeneration of our area. That has proved successful. I hope that soon the Government, consistent with their commitment to securing regeneration in east London, will give the green light to an international passenger station at Stratford on the high-speed rail link, towards which the local authority, private sector development companies and construction firms have been working for a couple of years. It will not cost the Government anything, but it will be the catalyst for the substantial new development, new jobs and new opportunities that east London so desperately needs.
There have been a number of references to the Labour party leadership election. I welcome the fact that throughout the country there is enormous interest in the issues that have been raised by that election. One effect of that is a growing revulsion towards the effects of narrow marketisation within our society. My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar) said that there are signs that the Government have a worsening conscience about what has been happening to our society. I hope that that is so and that we shall increasingly agree on the need to reduce inequality in the United Kingdom.
Lady Olga Maitland (Sutton and Cheam) : I have listened to the debate with tremendous interest, but, depending on whether one was sitting on the Opposition or Government Benches, one would have gained a completely different impression of Britain and of its role in the world.
I am fed up with Opposition Members bashing Britain and talking it down. The time has come for us to stand back and take a cool, calm look at where we are today and how society, across the board, has improved in terms of prosperity, standards of living and expectations.
The Opposition's talk about this country becoming "worse and worse" and their scaremongering bears no relation to reality. The striking point made in the debate that highlights the differing approaches of the Conservative party and the Opposition to social problems is that the Opposition seem to trade on the politics of envy and on resentment for one man's success. That is the most destructive element of their policies and is why I trust, hope and believe that the Labour party will never become a party of Government until it recognises that people are entitled to strive, achieve and gain reward for hard work.
In a thoughtful speech, the hon. Member for Gateshead, East (Ms Quin) made some telling points. She mentioned full employment and asked why we could not have a new environmental task force. Another spending pledge--that typified the Labour party. How much will such a scheme cost ? Who will pay for it ? It will be an artificial form of providing labour, which will not build the prosperity that we need. It simply would not work.
Mr. Dewar : Will the hon. Lady give way ?
Lady Olga Maitland : I am sorry but time is short and I shall end my remarks shortly.
In a caring society, parents can know that their children will receive a proper education up to university level. I
Column 631applaud the Government for ensuring that one child in three goes on to higher education. That is a big advance on 10 years ago, when one child in eight did so. I applaud the fact that children are now better fed than ever. People might criticise junk food, but improved diets have made children healthier and fitter.
The health service is treating more people more rapidly using the latest technology and is making more investment. People are now expected to live longer ; hence the problems that we shall face in coping with old age pensions in the future.
We have not dealt with moral poverty. We all face the problem of the breakdown of family life. Why do couples no longer believe that they can marry and make a commitment to each other that will last throughout their children's lifetime ? A spin off from that was the establishment of the Child Support Agency to chase feckless fathers, the absent dads--the people who believe in the "I want to have it" society and the "I can then dispense with it" society. We must deal with that moral poverty with a great deal of energy and diligence. We should be clear in our minds and condemn lesbians seeking special facilities from the health service for fertility treatment. That is moral poverty ; it has nothing to do with building family values.
I found it depressing that the Archbishop of Canterbury this week launched a model religious education syllabus but downgraded the Christian input. Our children cannot grow up in a moral-free and value-free society. If there is one thing that we must do, it is to ensure that Christian beliefs, culture and philosophy are included in our children's education and that they are thus enriched.