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Column 871We must all look more widely and deal with the great issues of social change, especially marriage breakdown, over which we all admit that the Government have little or no influence.
The report's proposals are familiar enough. Many Conservatives feel that most of them have been or are being tried, and some have been found wanting. Moreover, it is very important to note that the proposals are not costed and overlook the progress that has been made by the Government in many of the matters under discussion. In brief, the proposals call for a huge increase in public expenditure in nine respects, and that is simply not on.
As well as political doubts about the report, I have doubts about its methodology, a point that some hon. Members have mentioned. The hon. Member for Garscadden quoted from the front page of this week's edition of The Sunday Telegraph , but I wonder whether he read as far as page 21 where the admirable journalist Mr. Paul Goodman exposed the flimsy starting point for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation's evidence, or what lies at the heart of the report. In his article, Mr. Goodman makes the distinction between relative and absolute poverty. I shall return to that issue in a moment, but I shall deal first with his point about the report's most important claim, which was also quoted by the hon. Member for Garscadden. That claim is:
"Since 1979 the lowest income groups have not benefited from economic growth".
If that claim were true, it would indeed be proof that the very poorest have experienced an increase in absolute poverty. However, as Mr. Goodman states, the claim is unproven.
The report's judgment relies on two key figures to identify the poorest 10 per cent. of the population, examining their incomes before and after housing costs are taken into account. The claim is that the incomes of this group have remained the same before housing costs are considered or have fallen by 10 per cent. afterwards, but, as Mr. Goodman also points out, those figures are based not on firm evidence, such as tax returns, but on the "Households Below Average Income" survey.
I would go much further: the HBAI figures themselves have a number of important methodological limitations. They are based on a sample rather than a census and did not track individuals for any length of time, so they cannot reveal how many people have seen their incomes rise or fall. The HBAI figures are in turn based on the family expenditure survey whose data are collected mainly from expenditure figures, not from income figures. Moreover, the FES uses interviews to gather data, and we must admit that it is at least possible that some respondents might misreport their circumstances.
We must also observe that the HBAI figures relate to the period up to 1991- 92 when interest rates and unemployment were still high. Since then, unemployment has fallen substantially--by more than 500, 000. In addition to its methodological problems, the HBAI gives a picture of the past. In more general terms, the survey also provides conflicting evidence about the living standards of the poorest. A large number of self-employed people such as farmers, taxi drivers and accountants report no income at all, although perhaps we should not be surprised that
Column 872accountants manage to show no income. Surely it is rather odd that only about half the people in the bottom 10 per cent., excluding pensioners, are on income-related social security benefits. What are the other half doing? That question must be asked.
The Secretary of State cited HBAI survey figures for individuals in the bottom 10 per cent. of income distribution who now have access to freezers, fridge freezers, telephones and video recorders. They show substantial percentage increases in the possession of these consumer durables. That is at the heart of the debate. It is important to note that, in relative terms, things are not as bad as they were. Based on such statistics, Mr. Goodman is right to say that the Rowntree report's main claim is, to say the least, disingenuous.
I should like to comment on the distinction between absolute and relative poverty. There can no doubt that we all deplore absolute poverty, and the ever-increasing billions of pounds that are put into the welfare system are evidence that we deplore it; but we must be careful not be trapped by any absurd definition of an abstract poverty line. It is plainly ridiculous to use any definition in which to be below, say, half the average income or any other similar specification is to be poor. Such a definition would mean that poverty would rise every time average incomes rose.
Others define the poverty line in relation to income support levels and that, too, has severe problems, as does the definition of a poverty line based on average expenditure. What happens to those who save rather than spend? Under that system, some very rich people would easily be classified as poor. None of those definitions will do. Poverty is a very emotional word. If we are beguiled by any of those definitions, relative poverty will, self-evidently, always be with us. I have severe doubts about the use to which the Rowntree report can be put.
There is, however, another much more reliable document which shows what has happened in recent years in the social conditions of the country. I refer, of course, to the annual publication "Social Trends". Unfortunately, I do not have time to go through the various figures that show the great increases in public expenditure, on social security, health and education, and, indeed, show the changes in people's lives that have resulted in the majority of people becoming wealthier. However, the figures from "Social Trends" show clearly that while the country is getting wealthier and healthier, it may not be getting any wiser.
I wonder sometimes whether the great problem which we face nowadays is not relative poverty but relative prosperity. Why will not many people simply accept that they are getting richer and not count themselves as poor? Why do they seem to get more miserable as they receive more of the supposed material benefits of life? That, of course, is another debate, but it has some bearing on today's continued exhibition of the arid politics of envy expressed by the Opposition.
Mr. John Denham (Southampton, Itchen): My father was employed as a village schoolmaster in east Devon. When I was seven years old--the same age as my daughter now--we did not have a refrigerator, a television or central heating. Does that mean, as Conservative Members suggest, that when I was seven I was poorer
Column 873than my present constituents who have a television and a refrigerator? I think that is absolute nonsense. Of course poverty is relative to the wealth, income and life styles of those who live around us. Any other definition of poverty makes no sense at all. Whatever else the Rowntree report may prove, it establishes beyond doubt that many, many people in our society live in poverty because their income is insufficiently high to enable them to participate fully in the activities of society and to enjoy in a reasonable way the benefits of that society like other people. That is not the politics of envy. My constituents are clear about that and I do not think that a distinction can be drawn between Labour and Conservative voters. If they were to see somebody from the constituency set up a business, work hard and make a success of it, they would wish him good luck and think it right that that person should be rewarded for his enterprise and effort.
My constituents know the difference between such enterprise and somebody who happens to be the boss of a privatised industry, who has the power to write his own cheques on the basis of a monopoly which he can exploit. People understand and do not resent justified inequalities in our society, but they resent rampant unfairness and greed that sit side by side with deep poverty.
The Secretary of State told us that he did not wish to pursue the phantom politics of envy but, rather, wanted to show how the Government were concentrating on helping people to get out of poverty and to help themselves. The Government's record does not suggest any significant degree of success in that self-defined enterprise. Poverty is no longer a northern or a Scottish problem, but a problem which has been made national by the failure of the Government's policies. Let us dwell on some of the measures of that failure. At Christmas, 400,000 children in Hampshire, Sussex, Dorset, Kent, Berkshire and Surrey--the main southern counties--faced what I would regard as Christmas in poverty because they and their parents were dependent on state benefits. Ministers do not grasp the reality of juggling inadequate incomes to buy presents. In all probability, all too often, people have to borrow money at extortionate interest rates to be able to afford to buy presents at Christmas for their children. That poverty, right across the heart of England, has been created by the Government and they appear to be unwilling to do anything about it.
When people turn to the state social security system, there are certainly plenty of disincentives which prevent them from receiving assistance. The truth is that a third of the applications for social fund loans for items as basic as beds, cots and clothing are refused, not because the applicant does not meet the criteria for a loan but because the cash-limited funds have run out. The Secretary of State has devised a cruel system, which tells people that their needs will be assessed and, yes, by the Government's criteria they will qualify for a loan, which will have to paid back, but, having decided that that assistance is needed to buy a bed, or some clothing, or a cooker, or, dare I say it, even a refrigerator, they are then turned down because there is not enough money in the system.
The Government say that they aim to help the long-term unemployed. What is the position in my constituency and in Hampshire? Between 1990 and 1994,
Column 874the number of long-term unemployed in my constituency, as well as in Southampton and Hampshire as a whole, trebled. What is more, the proportion of long-term unemployed people rose. We have heard a lot from the Government about helping the unemployed get back to work. Even when one disregards the high point of the recession to be fair, the reality is that the number of people who have gone on to the dole queues, who have stayed there and who are unable to get off, has risen dramatically in absolute terms and as a proportion of those out of work. There is absolutely no evidence whatever that the Government's policies, which they say are directed towards those most in need, are enabling people to get back into work.
A comparison of the figures for long-term unemployment in 1990 with those for 1994, the most recent year for which figures are available, and the impact of Government training schemes, show that a higher proportion of the long-term unemployed who go on training schemes remain unemployed today than four or five years ago. Indeed, 60 per cent. of the long-term unemployed go back to the dole queue six months later and only 16 per cent. of the long-term unemployed manage to get into full-time work after one of the Government's training courses. Five years ago, at least a quarter of those who had been out of work for a year or more managed to obtain full- time work after a Government training course.
Where is the evidence that any of the Government's policies help those who are most in need to get out of unemployment and to achieve security? There is no evidence of that if we consider the operation of the social security system or the operation of the Government's policies towards the long-term unemployed. There is no evidence when we consider the number of people who are trying to raise their children in poverty.
The Secretary of State delighted in a nit-picking performance on the statistics. However, he ignored the real issue, skating over it in about 30 seconds. After spending 20 minutes nit-picking on the statistics, he said that he did not think that there was absolute poverty in this country, inequality was not relevant and therefore there was nothing to debate.
However, inequality is relevant. Poverty is relative and the inability to participate normally in our society is undermining society itself. The Government must recognise that fact. There is a price to be paid for deep poverty, on the one hand, and ostentatious greed, on the other. It is the price of sending the message, as so many Conservative Back Benchers have done this evening, to the country at large that, if people feel excluded, that is the natural state of affairs.
There are great dangers for our society in sending out that message, as so many Conservative Members have done. We need a Government who say that it is a disaster to have so many people whose incomes are so low that they cannot reasonably share in the benefits of the society around them. We need a Government who will say that they will do everything possible to include those people in society.
If the Government do not do that, the whole of society will pay the price of the inevitable breakdown of the sense of community, and all that follows in relation to crime and deprivation. We will all pay a price. The Secretary of State looks pained by my comments. I understand that he does not like what I am saying, but we will all pay a price
Column 875for all the children who are raised in poverty and who will not succeed at school as well as they might if they had been raised in wealthier surroundings.
One need only speak to the teachers who are educating those children to understand that many such children--not all--bring a disadvantage to school that is not shared by children who come from wealthier and more comfortable backgrounds. We need an education system that enables those children to overcome that disadvantage. However, the Government are not providing that opportunity because, as we have heard time and time again--
Mr. Michael Stephen (Shoreham): As this most important debate on poverty was initiated by the Labour party, I thought that it was important that I should be in the Chamber to listen to the Opposition Front-Bench spokesman, the hon. Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar). He is a sincere and intelligent man, but I was disappointed by his speech. He drew attention to many problems of which we are all aware, but he failed to make many proposals to tackle those problems. On the rare occasions when he was drawn into proposals on, for example, a minimum wage, he was unable to tell the House at what level it should be fixed and what effect it might have on the employment prospects of the very people who-- [Interruption.]
Mr. Stephen: The hon. Member for Garscadden was unable to tell us what effect a minimum wage might have on the employment prospects of the very people whom the Labour party claims to seek to help. I was impressed by the speech of the hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field). His was a very thoughtful speech, but, with respect, he too was rather long on diagnosis and short on prescription. I have read, as I imagine we all have, the Opposition motion which calls for
"a major welfare-to-work programme, a national childcare strategy and action to improve education and skills."
I listened to Opposition Members' speeches and I remain of the view that the only Member of the House who has thought seriously about the matter, who has made proposals and who is doing anything about welfare-to-work is my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Security. In that regard, I refer to the jobseeker's allowance, the back-to-work bonus and the agreement that applicants for the jobseeker's allowance will have to make in future.
Many Opposition Members believe that every unemployed person is desperately seeking work and is quite unable to find it. However, our constituents know, even if we do not, that a great many people are working in the black economy and a great many others are not making a very serious attempt to find work. Therefore, the agreement is important. It is important that a clear programme is mapped out with the assistance of the Department of Employment so that the person concerned can get back into work as soon as possible.
Column 876Education is, of course, of great importance if poverty is to be avoided. That is why the Government have introduced some very imaginative reforms which, sadly, have been resisted root and branch by the education establishment and, it goes without saying, by the Labour party.
Those reforms were introduced not because the Government wanted to mess teachers about, but because employers were approaching us as constituency Members and saying, "We spend more money than ever before on education per child, but the results are appalling. You are sending us too many young people who cannot read, write or do arithmetic and, more important perhaps, who have entirely the wrong attitude to work."
That is why we have had to introduce the national curriculum and testing. We are interested not in what children have been taught, but in what they have learnt. If we do not find out what they have learnt until the end of their formal education, it is too late to do anything about it.
The Opposition motion calls for "a national childcare strategy". Opposition Members did not expand on that, but we are all aware that some single parents are genuinely in need. They are single parents through no fault of their own. However, we close our eyes to the real world if we do not recognise that the number of teenage pregnancies and illegitimate births has soared to epidemic proportions. Providing childcare facilities for women in that position involves taking money in taxes from many families who have decided that the mother should stay at home to look after the child. It is not easy for us to ask those families to pay taxes to support those who choose to, or have to, go out to work.
We must, of course, manage our economy well and I congratulate the Government on their management of the economy. Business people in my constituency say that what they need to create jobs is not on offer from the Labour party. They want low inflation, low interest rates and a competitive exchange rate for the pound. The most compassionate society is a society in which no one needs welfare.
In the few short moments remaining to me, I want to turn to what I consider to be an even more important subject, which has not even been mentioned in the debate so far. This debate is about poverty and we have focused throughout on material poverty. I want to refer to spiritual poverty. Throughout the land there are empty churches. The lights have gone out and, perhaps, will never be rekindled. In a very real sense, much of the light has gone out of our individual and collective lives. That has happened in the past 30 years, not just in this country but throughout the western world. The most important phenomenon throughout those 30 years has been television, which has found its way into every house in the land.
On television today, religion is treated as though it were a science--as though it were part of biology, physics or the like. Every day on our television screens we are treated to examples of people and communities where the lowest standards of personal behaviour are to be found. Today, morals are like clothes--they are whatever suits the individual. Perhaps D.H. Lawrence put his finger on it when he said that whatever is natural is right.
We have so much of a man-centred attitude to our lives today that one feels almost embarrassed to mention God in the House of Commons. There has been a breakdown
Column 877of respect in our society in the past 30 years--a breakdown of respect between men and women and between parents and children, and a breakdown of respect for all forms of authority. There has been a breakdown of respect within and for the family.
It seems that in order to reach the highest ranks of the Church of England one has to show that one does not believe in God. The Church used to be a rock upon which we could found our lives. It is now much more like shifting sand.
Of course, the economy, education and social security are important, but, however wealthy in material terms we may be, a nation which lives in spiritual poverty is truly destitute.
Mr. Thomas Graham (Renfrew, West and Inverclyde): I have listened to the debate with great interest. As usual, Conservative Members have said that Opposition Members' speeches are not so good. The reason for that is that Conservative Members do not like the truth when it is spelt out to them.
The hon. Member for Shoreham (Mr. Stephen) mentioned lone parents. I shall quote to him some facts and figures on lone parents. Three in five lone- parent families, compared with one fifth of couples with children, live in poverty. Seventy per cent. of lone parents receive income support--1 million lone parents in all. Nearly all lone parents would like to have a paid job at some point, and 55 per cent. would do so sooner if child care was available. Instead of castigating lone parents, the Government should do something to help them. They have the power and position to do that. It is time that they got off the backs of lone parents and gave them some assistance.
I heard the Secretary of State reply to the hon. Member for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman). It was the old theme of "on yer bike" to look for a job. The hon. Lady said that people must get up and go. What absolute nonsense. The Secretary of State agreed. He said, "If you get up and go, you will get a job." I live in an area which has suffered unemployment. The local factory, which employed nearly 7,500 folk at one time, has shut. I am not saying that we are devastated--we are too proud to be devastated and we have talent--but we must get access to the finance markets. We must have access to something which gives us life. Many folk who worked in our factories are dead and buried, but their families live in the area. They have no job and no income. They rely on the state. It is nonsense to tell them and people in other parts of Scotland to get up and look for a job when nearly 300 to 400 kids chase one job and nearly 4,000 folk chase one job.
The Secretary of State agrees that people should get up and go. I have always believed in people getting up and going, but there are some folk who cannot possibly get up and go for the job market that the Government have made unavailable to them. In Strathclyde alone, we have lost 50 per cent. of our manufacturing jobs. If we do not have producers, we will have nothing. If there is wholesale slaughter of companies, manufacturers and industry, how will Britain get out of the pit? It will not get out of the pit with the Government. They have no vision to get Britain working again. We provide work
Column 878only by producing and selling goods. The Government have no intention of doing that. They keep trying to shift us into the services market.
A taxi driver in my constituency drove me to the airport today. He told me about his wife who had a job. Do you know what the job paid, Madam Deputy Speaker? It paid £2 an hour. She was making sweets. I know the company for which she worked. I can take you there any day, Madam Deputy Speaker, and show you people swanning about, guzzling champagne and stuffing themselves with steak, when that wee woman will be lucky to have a bit of cheese and some milk while her husband struggles as a taxi driver. Get up and go--would you get up and go for £2 an hour, Minister? Would his family work for £2 an hour? That is the Minister getting up and going. I am in favour of getting up and going. The Government should provide a minimum wage for workers such as that woman. She wants to work, but not for £2 an hour. She wants to bring her money to help to put bread on the table and put food in her family's belly. Two pounds an hour will not go very far, Minister. Is that the society that you want to create? I could go further.
I now refer to the iniquitous extension of VAT on fuel to pensioners. Obviously, I know that there are pensioners who have a few quid, but I meet pensioners all the time in my constituency, and I ask them what they had for breakfast, dinner and for what we call tea. It is shocking to hear of the poverty of people in Scotland. I know that that happens all over Britain. When they are told that the Common Market will give us a wee free handout of milk, eggs, butter, cheese and a can of mince, they say to me, "Will it come here, Tommy? It was good the last time." That breaks my heart. Their husbands fought for this country and probably saved it from slavery and fascism, but they now live in poverty that was created by a cringing creature of a Government who are not looking after our people at all. There is too much poverty, yet the Minister says that there is none. I have lived in poverty; I have been unemployed and I know what it is like.
I know what it is like to sweat because the electricity bill is coming in, and to sweat when I see that my son has holes in his shoes, because my wife or I will have to find the money to buy him new ones. I know what it is like when there is no job available; I have suffered that indignity. I was a fully qualified engineer, but there was no work. I have an older brother who worked for 37 years and had never been unemployed before. He is a design draughtsman, yet he cannot get a job. He is trying everything-- further education, the lot--but there is no job for him. I have another brother who suffered unemployment for a long time until he got a job.
Does the Minister realise what problems that creates in households? Last week in my surgery a woman was breaking her heart because her house had been repossessed and she was desperate to be housed. She and her husband had split up. I asked her what she had done with her money, and apparently her husband worked in a shop, but because of the economic depression and the lack of money in the community his hours were cut and therefore so were his wages.
Then the man was ill with a stomach problem and his wife spent the money on dietary requirements, which were not subsidised by the national health service. She had put the money in to try to keep her man well, and at the end of the day the mortgage did not get paid and they lost their house. Now they are out of the house and have been
Column 879split up, so there is a huge problem. The man is still in a low-paid job and has been separated from his wife and child because they cannot live in their home and are having to sleep in other people's homes. That is what poverty is, Minister.
It is all right for the wealthy folk who have a few bob, such as the folk here. When people earn £36,000 a year they can put their hands into their pockets and buy their way out of any trouble. Our folk cannot buy themselves out of trouble. They cannot find the jobs to earn the wages to buy what they need. I shall give one more example. I tell you, Minister--
Poor diet causes obesity, tooth decay and loss, anaemia, rickets, coronary heart disease, strokes and cancers. I believe that the worst cancer that Britain has had for the past 16 years is the Government. Only through a general election will we able sensibly to get Britain back to work and enable people to earn a wage so that they will not have to live off the state. There are many jobs that need doing in this country. The roads are falling apart, and so are the schools. We need new schools and hospitals, and we need care and attention. I say to the Minister, "Get our folk back to work, and we shall not need to pay so much money to keep folk out of work."
Lady Olga Maitland (Sutton and Cheam): As the debate is based on the Joseph Rowntree Foundation's inquiry into income and wealth, I thought that I would devote a few moments to some observations about that foundation as a whole. I entirely endorse what the Secretary of State said at the beginning of the debate when he pointed out what a left-wing bias the foundation has.
I should have more confidence in the Joseph Rowntree Foundation's reports if there were any recognisable right-wing figures among the trustees. Sadly, such people are missing. The foundation will sponsor any number of inquiries into topics dear to its heart, but I should like to see it accept a few propositions put to it by right-wing organisations. Why, for example, did it not examine a paper about the breakdown of the family, or an analysis of family responsibilities? Or am I asking too much?
I find the report emotive and biased; the foundation is damned if it can recognise good news and it relishes bad news. The report makes the simple claim that the poor have got poorer since 1979, but does not back that up with any hard facts. It is based on figures from the Government publication, "Households Below Average Income", which contains information collected on the basis of samples designed to provide illustrations of spending rather than on the basis of numerically sound income statistics.
The report is therefore impressionistic, and gives no proof of widespread impoverishment. No allowance is made for the black economy and the report cannot explain why even the very poorest in the bottom tenth of society now have access to a video recorder. It does not distinguish between different types of the poor. For example, there are many more students today than there were in 1979, thanks to the Government's policy of pushing up standards in schools and getting young people
Column 880into further and higher education. Grants have, of course, become more strictly controlled, but a temporary lack of funds does not make students a social problem. After all, students--by virtue of their education--are likely to achieve reasonable prosperity.
The report makes false assumptions that the very poorest are always the same downtrodden group. That is not so. Some people who were very poor in 1979 are not poor today; I refer particularly to pensioners who, because of higher state pensions and better occupational pensions, have to a large extent improved their position. We should look at groups that are held in the benefit trap. Fifteen years ago, 600,000 people collected invalidity benefit. Today 1.6 million people do so. Is there really so much more long- term illness and injury about, or has a culture grown in which living off the state's money is normal and acceptable?
The same question must be asked about another group--the single, never- married mothers. They make up a significant group, and are bereft of support from the fathers of their children. Those absent and feckless fathers are rightly chased to support the children by the Child Support Agency. The group is interesting because the problems of poverty caused by single parenthood are often of the parents' own making. I have yet to see any mother in the never-married category who has given any thought to planning a structure for her life when mothering a child. What discussions has she ever had about commitment with the father of her child? Nobody can blame the Government for the breakdown of a relationship between a man and a woman.
I welcome the remarks of the Archbishop of York, Dr. Habgood, who is suggesting that he would support a tax devised to make marriage more attractive, which would thereby bring children within the family circle of parental commitment--above all, the father's commitment--to the family good. I can say only that children always do far better when there are two parents rather than one.
Let us look at the definition of poverty. The goalposts have moved so significantly that we take comforts for granted today, which we would never have taken for granted 10 or more years ago. Even the one tenth of society at the bottom level have improved their living standards. For example, in 1979, 47 per cent. of people had a telephone, while today the figure is 68 per cent. In 1979, 42 per cent. had central heating. Today, the figure is 70 per cent. When one starts looking at those basic goalposts of poverty to see how things have changed, one understands that the debate has gone off on completely the wrong tack.
I draw the House's attention to a story in the Daily Mail , which states that the Watters family legitimately claim £18,000 a year in social security handouts. On top of that, they went on a spending spree with almost £7,000 extra that was wrongly sent to them by the Department of Social Security, which is not claiming the money back. The Watters family spent the money on Christmas gifts, including £1, 000 on mountain bikes for their children. Some £600 went on a fitted kitchen and new furniture, while £2,000 was spent on a Montego car. The Watters family have admittedly been hit by ill-health. Both parents are on disability living allowances, and one of their five children has a groggy knee. But it must be said that while they are unlucky in health, they are fortunate in welfare. Are the poor getting poorer under the Tories, as the Rowntree foundation insists? Ask the
Column 881Watters family, and they will tell another story. Indeed, hard-working taxpayers who heard that story today may be forgiven for wondering whether we have lost our plain common sense. The truth is that that family are a symptom of how far we have gone in generous social benefits and show clearly how the goalposts of poverty have moved.
In the short time remaining, I shall cite another example of how the definition of poverty has become unreal. The case of Paul and Georgina Stokes was reported in The Daily Telegraph . They provide a good home for their three obviously happy children. Mr. Stokes is a computer technician, who lives with his family on an estate in south-east London on a disposable income of £156.60 a week which, in the view of the Child Poverty Action Group, puts them on the poverty line.
Let us consider the family's life style. Admittedly, their flat is cramped, but it is warm. The children are well cared for. There is no denying that it is not easy to meet costs each week--it takes planning. After the bills are paid, the couple say that they are lucky if they have £20 or £30 a month for luxuries. Neither drinks or smokes and a luxury might be a Chinese meal once in a while. Mr. Stokes has a car, although it is in his father's garage at present as he cannot afford the running costs, and meanwhile he goes to work on a small motor cycle.
Last year, life improved sharply for Mr. Stokes when, having been unemployed for two years, he went on a Government retraining scheme and thence into a job. Although he is still reckoned to be on the poverty line, today his children are well clothed and have toys and Pinky, the cat. Using catalogues and hire purchase, the family can afford a stereo system, colour television, fridge, freezer, washing machine and microwave.
Over and above all that, this Conservative Government have given that family the peace of mind of knowing that the children will grow up certain of a real education--an education with standards, which will get them into further and higher education, to university and into professional life. They have the peace of mind of knowing that they need never worry about hospital bills, unlike families in other countries in the developed world.
In view of the very prosperous conditions that this Conservative Government have given all the people, this debate on poverty should be revised.
Mr. Bill Etherington (Sunderland, North): One thing is certain--the contribution of the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Lady Olga Maitland) was a good example of impoverishment of thought, vision and compassion.
I must also take the Secretary of State for Social Security to task on part of his statement, in which he quoted the percentages of families who have fridge-freezers, washing machines, cars and television sets. He reminds me of the prerequisite for a cynic: "A man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing."
The Secretary of State certainly demonstrated that in that part of his speech.
If the Secretary of State had wanted to deal with people who are really affected by poverty or impoverishment, he would have considered those who do not have good
Column 882housing or eat well and whose children do not have the best education facilities because of the area in which they live. Those people do not have good transport and cannot afford holidays. Despite the roseate glow that the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam painted on society, my experience of life with my constituents does not fit in with her philosophy. There are various types of inequality--inequality between people and groups and, perhaps most important, inequality between regions. I speak for a constituency that is the 63rd most impoverished out of 623. All life within the constituency is based on that fact. The inequalities are a result of deliberate Government policy. It is no good the Government saying that they are accidental and that the trickle-down effect does not work.
Nothing new has come out of the Rowntree report. The truth has probably been obvious for the past seven or eight years to anyone who has been prepared to read about those things, although it has not been put quite as starkly as it is in the report.
My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar) mentioned that deprivation brings about bad health. That does not appear to cause too much concern to the Government, judging from the way in which they treat the health service. A study that was carried out--albeit about two years ago--by the university of Bristol, said that, in the north-east, Easington, which is adjacent to my constituency, and Sunderland were two of the bottom five districts for bad long-term health. That proves that the 15 years of Conservative Government have been a failure for the health of the people in my constituency, and in the region in general.
Government policy has guaranteed that we shall get low pay in large amounts. The legislative thrust has been for the weakening of trade unions and the abolition of wages councils. The Government's various economic policies have ensured that there has always been a large number of unemployed people, to be used as a threat to other people who were in low- paid employment and therefore would not be in a position to better their conditions.
It is coincidental that New Zealand was quoted as having a record of disparity of distribution of wealth similar to that of this country. That does not surprise me, because I was talking recently to a chap whom I went to school with-- [Interruption.] If the Secretary of State would like to intervene, I am willing to sit down.
Hardly a week goes by without the introduction of a piece of legislation that disadvantages unemployed or sick people or, in some cases, both. Since Christmas, we have had the Jobseekers Bill and legislation to prevent the payment of mortgage interest for unemployed people. Legislation has also been introduced to make things worse for people who are suffering on invalidity benefit. Perhaps worst of all, we have had the Government's revenue support grant estimates, which have decimated the services that local councils can provide, most of which are of benefit to the poor. If one is wealthy, one is not too
Column 883worried if the citizens advice bureaux close or if there are no welfare benefits officers, but if one is poor, that can be one's lifeline to try to bring about a little bit of improvement in one's life.
It has been shown beyond doubt under the current Government that, every time that there has been a boom, the wealthy have benefited, and every time that we have had a recession, the poor have paid. It is no surprise, therefore, that the gap is opening up between the wealthy and the poor. It is intentional. It is an indictment against the Government and, if they had had anything about them, they would have done something about it many years ago. It may well be that, with the coming general election, the Government might start to show a little bit of compassion, purely to win votes, which is about the measure of them.
The tax policies that have been carried out have exacerbated the gulf. Every tax policy that has been introduced by the Government, which has helped to direct tax away from direct taxation to indirect taxation, is a bigger burden on the poor and less of a burden on the well-off.
I shall finish, because I know that time is short and I promised that I would wind up by 9.20 pm. The Secretary of State mentioned the back-to-work bonus three times. I cannot help being slightly cynical about that, because it reminds me of the story that I once read in which there was a crock of gold at the end of the rainbow. The problem is that the Secretary of State does not recognise that most people are busy trying to find the rainbow, and there is no chance of their finding the crock of gold until they find the rainbow. I am pleased that we are now receiving more publicity for the results of the dreadful policies pursued for many years by this deplorable Conservative Government. The sooner that we have a general election to get rid of the present Government, the better. The Government have made the mistake of assuming that economic success will lead to a successful society. They have not learnt the lessons that everyone should have learnt from the failures of the Webb policies. I am pleased that my hon. Friends on our Front Bench are listening attentively. It will not be enough to get rid of unemployment and get the economy moving a bit better. Something radical must be done about a proper redistribution of wealth, to get rid of the comparative poverty that is becoming worse daily. 9.19 pm
Ms Harriet Harman (Peckham): This debate has shown clearly that the Tory Government have presided over growing divisions. But it has also shown that they are not prepared to address the problems that they have helped to create. So we have a divided Tory party, a divided Cabinet and now a divided nation.
The Joseph Rowntree Foundation report highlighted two principal causes of the growing divide: long-term unemployment and low pay. The Tory Government will act on neither, because they are locked into the ideology that wealth will trickle down from a privileged elite to the rest of Britain, that inequality is essential for economic efficiency, and that the free market and deregulation will ensure prosperity for all.
It has been made clear in this debate that making the rich richer has not made the poor better off. The Government cannot deal with poverty and inequality by