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Poverty (Scotland)

12.29 pm

Mr. John McAllion (Dundee, East): I begin by saying something about the title of the debate. I have chosen to debate Scottish poverty simply because I am a Scot and I represent a Scottish constituency. I am only too well aware that poverty has no respect for national origins; nor does one nationality inflict it on another.

Last year I attended the national poverty hearings in London, where I heard poor people from Liverpool, Belfast, Preston, Glasgow, Coventry, Dundee and many other places testifying that poverty is endemic across national and ethnic lines. It was made painfully clear that, for far too many millions of people, whatever their origins, poverty is a shared experience that has been inflicted on them by a combination of market forces operating on a global scale and Government policies of deregulation and privatisation which have taken from the poor and given to the rich. Someone once famously said that there is no such thing as the poverty gene. The poor are not born to be poor; they are made poor by the unjust actions of others.

Let me now address the poverty in my own country. The statistics of Scottish poverty are stark enough. The latest unemployment figures show that Scotland's official rate of unemployment is 10 per cent. above the United Kingdom average and more than 50 per cent. above the rate in the south-east of England. In 1996, official unemployment fell far more slowly in Scotland than in any other part of the United Kingdom.

The official unemployment figures are only the tip of the iceberg. The Government claim that there are 1.8 million unemployed people. In reality, 4 million people are out of work. That point was raised by one of my hon. Friends at Question Time yesterday. The Prime Minister and the Conservative party showed by their dismissive attitude that they could not care less; they showed why the Tories are rightly seen by most people as the party of mass unemployment.

Other relevant statistics reveal that more than 217,000 Scots earn less than £3 an hour--a top line well below £120 for a 40-hour week, when the average income in the rest of the country is £282 a week. Let us be absolutely clear. Those poverty wages have been imposed by the Government's drive for deregulation and what they cynically describe as a flexible labour market. At one end of the scale are the fat cats raking in huge astronomical earnings. The chairman of privatised BT earns £644,000 a year. At the other end of the scale, casualised and de-unionised workers are forced to survive on less than £2 an hour.

A recent article in the Oxford Review of Economic Policy showed that wage inequality in the United Kingdom is now greater than it was 100 years ago. It really is forward to the past under the Tory Government.

The latest Convention of Scottish Local Authority figures highlight our poor health record in Scotland, where there are 30 per cent. more deaths among working people than in England and Wales. In Scotland, more children are in lone-parent families, rented accommodation, families on income support and homeless families. We may have fewer very elderly people, but in general they are in poor health. They are more likely to live alone, to be on income support and to live in rented accommodation.

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COSLA estimates that those facts of deprivation in Scotland require Scottish education and social work departments to spend between £160 million and £270 million more each year compared with their counterparts in England and Wales. Those facts of deprivation are ignored by Scottish Office Ministers, who repeatedly threaten to reduce council spending in Scotland to England and Welsh levels.

If this morning's debate descends into a barren exchange of contradictory statistics across the Floor of the House, it will have failed miserably. I want to try to put a human face on the statistics of Scottish poverty. If nothing else, at least the record will show that Parliament knew the nature of the suffering and chose to do nothing.

Let us take the example of David from Glasgow, who told his story to the national poverty hearings last year. He is 45 years old, with a grown-up family, and he lives in temporary accommodation with the Simon Community. He is officially classified as homeless.

David never had many breaks. His wife had a severe schizophrenic illness, and he had been left to raise three children on his own. Because he was on his own, he became isolated and turned to drink. Because he was in arrears, he lost his council house and eventually ended up in prison where he reformed; but when he came out, he could not get a council house because of his previous arrears. The homeless single persons unit placed him in the Simon Community, at a cost of £300 a week. One week's money would have cleared his previous arrears and allowed him to have a council house, but the rules did not allow for that. Nor did they allow him to apply for a course at the local college. If he did that, his place in the Simon Community could no longer be funded by the single persons unit, and he would be out on the street again.

In other words, David is in a poverty trap created by a social security system that ensnares the poor in its mean-minded, penny-pinching bureaucracy--which excludes the poor instead of accepting them into society.

I wonder whether the Minister really understands the deep hurt that is caused when Ministers and Tory Members denounce the poor as a disgrace and scum, accuse them of begging through choice and call for them to be hosed out of shop doorways and moved on. That is precisely what a Minister and a Tory Back Bencher said a few weeks ago.

David's story is not unique. Millions of people are trapped in poverty. One of my constituents had been on a training-for-work programme funded through benefit plus. He was getting £62 a week and was entitled to full housing benefit. He is single, lives alone and is 57 years old. He saw a course at the local college that would have given him a qualification that might have got him back to work. He applied and was accepted.

The course was for 22 weeks and was funded by a bursary of £64 a week. Because it was a bursary, he lost his entitlement to housing benefit. He could not afford his rent, and was forced to quit the course and sign on for income support. Like David, he was trapped by the Government's petty regulations.

The Government have plans for the likes of David, who is described as a single claimant under 60 years of age. They plan to deny him the right to a home of his own.

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He will be allowed only housing benefit for what is described as a single, non-self-contained room in what is euphemistically described as a house of multiple occupation. Like all under-25s, single claimants under 60 will now not be allowed the exclusive use of a bathroom, a toilet or kitchen. In the Government's view, those basic decencies are too good for the likes of David and too good for the poor.

Recently I spoke to a senior council officer with 30 years' experience working in different communities in Dundee. He said that he was receiving reports from his field officers of levels of poverty that he had never encountered before. They described children being sent to school with no breakfast, families being unable to carpet or furnish their homes, and genuine hardship on a scale that those of us who came of age in the 1960s never dreamed could happen again in our society.

What was the Government's response? They chose to attack the poor. The jobseeker's allowance takes away entitlement to benefit. It puts the onus of proof on claimants, who have to prove their entitlement to benefit. If they cannot do so within a three-month period, their benefit is withdrawn.

Moves are afoot to privatise the entire social security system. Lone parent benefit, housing benefit and council tax benefit are being cut. Council services are being cut to the bone. The poor look to councils for housing, but the housing budget in Scotland is being slashed again this year by a staggering 30 per cent. The poor look to councils to school their youngsters, but across Scotland council schools are closing, and council teachers are being made redundant. The poor turn to council social work departments for help, but they too have all been cut by a Government who have turned their back on the poor in Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom.

We all have to live with the consequences of the Government's abject failure to create a just and fair society. Crime and drug abuse are rising everywhere, crimes of violence are on the up, our prisons are filling up, suicides in prisons are on the up. The Government plan to build more privatised prisons across Scotland; this House passes ever more repressive laws and ever harsher sentences; the Government seek a law-and-order solution to the problems of injustice and inequality. There is no such solution, and it is a fraud on the people to claim that there is.

From time to time in Scotland, there are major conferences on poverty. Sometimes there are even debates in this place.

Mr. William McKelvey (Kilmarnock and Loudoun): Has my hon. Friend had the opportunity to read the report by health visitors, which clearly shows that they have uncovered an increase in the incidence of rickets? As we know, rickets is a disease among children that is primarily caused by lack of vitamin B--through a lack of sunshine and especially a very poor diet that does not contain appropriate vitamins. When that was raised in the House, the former President of the Board of Trade admitted that he had read it but did not believe it. Such an attitude and response to a report by respectable and honest people is typical of Government Front Benchers.

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