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Mr. McAllion: My hon. Friend makes a very effective point. The right hon. Gentleman who made that insulting

5 Feb 1997 : Column 967

remark about a very good report happens to be the Deputy Prime Minister, and speaks on behalf of all Conservative Members. All of them should be ashamed of what he said. The facts of poverty are well known to those in power, but just like the Deputy Prime Minister, they simply choose to ignore them. When they are confronted with the facts of poverty they refuse to take them on board or believe them, and look the other way.

For the most part, poverty is hidden from the majority, who continue to enjoy rising living standards. Poverty is mainly contained in particular areas in parts of vast housing schemes, well away from the more prosperous suburbs; but it is undeniably there. The poor may be cut off, not unlike the black townships in apartheid South Africa, but they still have a voice and it must be heard, even in this place.

The problem is not that the country cannot afford to end poverty. In the final four decades of this century, world economic activity has quintupled. There has never been more material wealth than there is now. In relative terms, Scotland and Britain may have less of a share of that wealth, but they are both undeniably more wealthy than they have ever been.

In 1948, the country was immeasurably poorer than it is today, yet in 1948 the country found the political will to build a national health service and a welfare state that guaranteed the eradication of poverty, ignorance and illness among all peoples. Yet now, when we are far wealthier than ever before, we hear in the House the repeated cry that we cannot afford the social security system, the NHS or to treat the poor as equal citizens in an equal society. I for one simply do not believe that.

Mrs. Maria Fyfe (Glasgow, Maryhill): Does my hon. Friend recall that in 1948 hot school dinners of good nutritional value were available everywhere? Today, local authorities are having to consider removing proper school meals from their spending plans.

Mr. McAllion: My hon. Friend directs my attention and that of other hon. Members present to today's reality. I understand that, when the Secretary of State for Scotland was confronted by demonstrators outside the Scottish Grand Committee meeting in Selkirk on Monday, he said that there were no cuts in local government services. He was treated with the contempt that that sentence deserves by the demonstrators in Selkirk, and, indeed, by the vast majority of Scottish people. Those who depend on hot school dinners are the poor. Those with means have an alternative. The poor will suffer if hot school dinners are cut by councils across Scotland, which is what is happening.

The problem is not that there is not enough wealth--we have more than enough for everyone--but how we distribute it. For almost 20 years, the Government have been taking from the poor to give to the rich. It is time to reverse that process. [Laughter.] The hon. Member for North Tayside (Mr. Walker) laughs, but he should look at the latest analysis of households below average income, which says that, in 1979, the top 10 per cent. of earners took 20 per cent. of this country's wealth, but they now take 26 per cent. What has happened to the bottom 10 per cent. is the exact opposite. They have less of a share of the wealth than they did in 1979.

It is time that we reversed the Government's process of taking from the poor to give to the rich, through progressive and fair taxes linked to expanded programmes

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of public expenditure and investment. No one can achieve such a breakthrough until we get rid of the Tory Government. The first step will be taken in the general election when they are removed. With a new Government, further steps will follow to help the poor. Only then will their day come.

12.46 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. George Kynoch): I congratulate the hon. Member for Dundee, East (Mr. McAllion) on securing this debate. I have listened very carefully to all that he has said, and will attempt to deal with some of the points in the time remaining.

The Government's policies have always been directed towards promoting overall prosperity and economic growth, which have produced benefits for all of the people. In a rapidly changing and increasingly competitive world economy, living standards in Scotland in terms of real gross domestic product a head rose by 28 per cent. between 1985 and 1995, and are higher than in all parts of northern England and Wales. The benefits of that have been spread across all sections of our population.

Our policies of promoting sustained growth have meant that the United Kingdom recovery since 1992 has been the strongest of any of our major European competitors. Our underlying inflation performance is the best for almost half a century. Unemployment in Scotland has fallen by more than 70,000 since its previous peak in 1992, and is below the European average.

We have secured record levels of inward investment. The companies that we have been able to attract are creating jobs, resulting in increased prosperity for Scotland and its people. Research has shown that the vast majority of people are better off as a result of the Government's policies. Average income has risen by more than a third--37 per cent.--between 1979 and 1993-94, and all family types have benefited, not just top earners.

Listening to the hon. Member for Dundee, East recite his catalogue of doom and gloom, one realises the Labour party's difficulties in Scotland. He and his colleagues cannot recognise the Government's remarkable success in bringing wealth to the nation.

We are nevertheless determined to ensure that specific groups who need it are supported through the social security benefits system, for which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Security has responsibility. The main aim of the social security system is to focus resources on specific vulnerable groups such as low-income families, poorer pensioners and sick and disabled people on low incomes.

Mrs. Fyfe: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Kynoch: No, I shall not give way, because I want to try to get through as much as I can in this very short debate.

Following the implementation of key Department of Social Security reforms to the benefits system in 1988, extra help has been made available to low-income families, which is now worth approximately £1.5 billion a year. The value of improvements to income-related benefits for pensioners since 1989 is now £1.2 billion a year.

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The Government are committed to creating a better social security system that protects the most vulnerable, is adapted to modern needs and does not outstrip the nation's ability to pay. It is clear that changes to benefits can play a crucial role in helping people into work, which is the most effective way of raising their living standards.

Concentrating on attacking the causes of dependency and creating ladders of opportunity and incentives helps to increase individuals' chances to prosper. People are being helped to take up employment by ensuring that they are better off in work, and are not discouraged from increasing their earnings.

Those initiatives and incentives include the introduction and extension of family credit, which now averages £56 a week on top of family incomes in addition to child benefit, the introduction of disability working allowance, the fact that up to £60 a week in child care charges is ignored when calculating in-work benefits, and the implementation of the jobseeker's allowance.

However, it is important to bear in mind the fact that the benefit system should not be regarded as the mechanism for eliminating poverty. The Government have a range of policies and programmes with the aim of ensuring that everyone has the opportunity to benefit from economic prosperity. In addition to the help given to unemployed people, significant assistance is also given to those who have a job but require additional help.

I referred to the extensions to family credit and the other schemes aimed at ensuring that people find that they are better off with a job. Through its pilot earnings top-up scheme, which started last October, the Department of Social Security is now testing whether in-work benefit assistance is effective in getting the single and those without dependent children back to work. One of the eight pilot schemes is in Scotland, covering Perth, Dumbarton and Stirling, and it has the potential to increase the income of low-paid workers there by more than £50 a week. That is a practical measure, which will be especially beneficial for young people under 25.

As our economic measures continue to bear fruit, and unemployment in Scotland continues to fall, we remain alert to the needs of those who are still unemployed. In addition to our economic measures, we have put in place a wide range of programmes and services to combat unemployment and assist people back to work. They include programmes such as training for work, the main training programme for unemployed adults who have been out of work for longer than six months, Employment Service measures such as 1-2-1, worklink, and jobplan for the minority who remain unemployed for 12 months or longer, and restart courses and jobfinder grants for those still unemployed after two years.

The Government have also launched Project Work, an innovative programme offering job search help and practical work experience to people unemployed for two years or more. In response to encouraging results from two current pilots in Hull and in Medway and Maidstone, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Employment announced an extension. The four Scottish pilots, to be located in Lanarkshire, Edinburgh,

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Dunfermline and Dundee--the hon. Gentleman's own area--will help 9,000 long-term unemployed people to find jobs.

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