Previous Section Index Home Page

6 Apr 2010 : Column 266WH—continued

The Government seem to have turned their back on inequality in the public sector. That is surprising. The Government can do something about that. The hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak rightly spoke about the private sector, but should not the Government take a lead in respect of the area about which they can do something? For example, the maximum sum payable for the chief executive of a strategic health authority is £204,048 a year, whereas the pay for an NHS employee
6 Apr 2010 : Column 267WH
at pay band 1 is £13,233 per year-by the way, that is £600 below the minimum living standard-which is a ratio of 15.1:1.

The hon. Lady spoke about chief executives, but only in the private sector, not the public sector. Let us look at local authorities. In the local authority in Slough, which is the example that I have to hand, the lowest salary of a full-time employee is £12,994, whereas the chief executive is on a salary of £157,479, which is a ratio of 11:1.

Interestingly, in the Army-the hon. Member for Hereford, who knows about these things will agree-the ratio between a brigadier and a private soldier is only 6:1. I think that most hon. Members in this Chamber would agree that the Army is an effective, cohesive public sector organisation. If there can be an effective organisation-

Helen Goodman rose-

Andrew Selous: No, I will not give way to the Minister. She will have her turn to speak in a moment, when she will perhaps respond to my point about the cleaners in her own office and say whether she is happy for them to be paid below the London living wage-perhaps she is.

It is interesting that there is a much lower difference in the ratio between the lowest and the highest paid in an effective organisation.

The shadow Chancellor has said that any public sector wage higher than the Prime Minister's will have to be put to the Chancellor for agreement. Some 323 public sector employees are paid more than the Prime Minister. Over the weekend I learned that the Scottish First Minister is paid more than the Prime Minister, which is somewhat strange. The director-general of the BBC is on around £850,000 per year.

I believe in Government leading by example. If these things matter and we are going to say to private industry, "Get your house in order", private industry can rightly say to Members of Parliament, "What's going on in those institutions over which you have some say?" We have not seen much action from this Government in that area.

In answer to the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak, I say that we Conservatives are committed to the minimum wage.

Helen Goodman: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Andrew Selous: No. The Minister will have a chance to speak in a second.

The Minister is responsible for the Child Support Agency. As shadow Minister, I find it unacceptable that, according to table 15.1 of the 2007 families and children study produced by the Department, 61 per cent. of all parents with care were not receiving child maintenance. Those are not figures for which the CSA is responsible-where there is a valid maintenance contract-but it is shocking and unacceptable that 61 per cent. of fathers, largely, have got off without taking care of their responsibilities. How are we really going to do something about inequality and poverty among the lone parents whom the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak spoke about when 61 per cent. of lone parents are not in receipt of child support?

6 Apr 2010 : Column 268WH
12.19 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Helen Goodman): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this morning, Mr. Weir. I begin by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Lynne Jones). I am not sure what the opposite of a maiden speech is-perhaps we had better not go there, as they say. However, I wish to pay tribute to her for her speech this morning, and for the huge commitment that she has shown on these issues, both during her parliamentary career and before that in her work on housing in Birmingham.

She raised several important points to which I hope to respond. First, she talked about the importance of early intervention. Last week, I was in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen), to see the work supported by the Labour Government on early intervention. I saw three particularly good examples of that. One was work with teenagers who were pregnant or new mothers, and excellent work was being done to increase the life chances and opportunities of their babies. Another example was a family intervention project that dealt with families that suffered from a huge, complex interaction of problems. The third initiative was Sure Start and I feel proud-as does my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak, I am sure-that there are now 3,500 Sure Start centres. I am deeply alarmed by the proposal repeated by the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) to reduce the number of Sure Start centres in this country.

My hon. Friend talked about the level of equality and how it has varied over the past 60 years. That was interesting and, like her, I assumed that equality in the country was highest immediately after the second world war. In fact, that is not borne out by the data because high levels of inequality were a spillover from the problems of the interwar years. It was not until between 1975 and 1979-after four Labour Governments-that the lowest inequality ever to have existed in this country was achieved.

I know that we are not allowed to use visual aids, but I must refer to a document on the distributional impact of the Labour Government from 1997 to 2010, produced by the independent and highly respected Institute for Fiscal Studies. It shows that over that period, the effect of changes in tax and benefits led to an increase in wealth of about 12 per cent. for the poorest 10 per cent. of people. The effect on the richest 10 per cent. has been a reduction in wealth of about 8 per cent. Looking beyond the richest 10 per cent. of people to those earning more than £100,000, the impact of the tax and benefit changes has been minus 15 per cent.

In part, that is the result of measures taken by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who this month introduced a 50p rate of income tax for those earning above £150,000, a withdrawal of personal allowances for those earning over £100,000, and a restriction on tax relief for pension contributions. In two years' time, there will be a freeze on the higher-rate tax threshold. Meanwhile, at the other end of the income scale, there have been one-off real increases in benefits and increases in child tax credits. From 2012, a new child tax credit for one and two-year-olds is designed to benefit all parents of small children whether they are married, unmarried, separated or widowed. It will not stereotype
6 Apr 2010 : Column 269WH
or ghettoise anyone, or try to make choices between the deserving and the undeserving poor.

The hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire made several remarks and I do not have time to make a thorough critique of them all. At the end of his speech he claimed to be concerned about people on low wages-that from the party which steadfastly opposed the introduction of the minimum wage. He now says that his party is committed to the minimum wage, but he has not said whether it is committed to maintaining it in real terms. The minimum wage benefits 1 million people, two-thirds of whom are women. Since its introduction in 1999, it has increased in real terms by 23 per cent. If the hon. Gentleman wishes to intervene to say that his party is committed to maintaining the minimum wage in real terms, I would be happy to give way.

Andrew Selous: My understanding is that the minimum wage is set by the Low Pay Commission. I think that the trick is to set it as high as possible so as not to harm the prospects of people going into low-paid work. There is a conversation to be had about the level of tax credits and the minimum wage.

Helen Goodman: That was as clear a commitment as one could expect under the circumstances. My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak also-reasonably enough-mentioned the problems at the high end of the spectrum. It will not have escaped her notice that the Chancellor has imposed a special tax on the pools that banks have set aside for bank bonuses. As she will know, that was expected to raise £500 million, but in the event it raised £2 billion-a significant sum of money by any standards.

The Government's commitment to tackling poverty cannot be gainsaid; we have achieved some significant improvements. The hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink), who is no longer in his seat, was the first to mention pensioners, and 900,000 pensioners have been lifted out of poverty. The poorest third of pensioners
6 Apr 2010 : Column 270WH
are now £2,100 a year better off, and we have made moves to re-establish the link between pensions and earnings, which was so needlessly destroyed by the previous Administration.

The Government's policies on families mean that the poorest fifth of families are, on average, £3,000 a year better off. Half a million children had been lifted out of poverty by 2007, and measures taken since then will lift a further 550,000 children out of poverty by the end of the year. We have halved absolute poverty. The hon. Member for Hereford (Mr. Keetch) asked whether we have a continuing commitment to that policy. We took the Child Poverty Bill through Parliament-and we are grateful for cross-party support-because we are absolutely committed to making continued progress on that matter over the next 10 years.

Mr. Keetch: Will the Minister give a commitment that a future Labour Government would introduce a pensioner poverty Bill along the lines of the Child Poverty Bill, and legislate to ensure that pensioners do not fall into poverty?

Helen Goodman: Much as I would like to, I cannot anticipate the manifesto or the next Queen's Speech.

My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak asked about the significance of property taxes. She was right to mention that, and it is another reason why the Conservative party's proposal to cut inheritance tax for the wealthiest 3,000 millionaires is so bizarre when coming from a party that claims to be concerned about inequality. Any party interested in inequality must address poverty, and look across society at the whole complex of policies and how they impact on people. At this time while we struggle to emerge from a recession, I cannot see that the British people-

12.30 pm

Mr. Mike Weir (in the Chair): Order. Unfortunately, we have run out of time in this fascinating debate.

6 Apr 2010 : Column 271WH

Swindon to Kemble Rail Line

12.30 pm

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold) (Con): I am grateful to you, Mr. Weir, and to Mr. Speaker for allowing me the opportunity to hold this Adjournment debate. I am even more grateful to the Minister for being here on a day when I am sure that he would prefer to be doing other things elsewhere.

[Dr. William McCrea in the Chair]

I welcome you to the Chair, Dr. McCrea. This is the second Adjournment debate that I have had on this subject; the first was on 30 June 2008. Given the work that has been involved in campaigning in support of the redoubling, it is perhaps fitting that it is one of the last subjects on which I will speak before the election. If the Minister will forgive the metaphor, I hope that my campaign for redoubling is arriving at the station and that he will have some good news today for my constituents.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Chris Mole) rose-

Mr. Clifton-Brown: Perhaps this is the good news that I am waiting for.

Chris Mole: In my experience as a rail Minister since last July, it is impossible to make a speech about rail without using a rail metaphor, so I forgive the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: The Minister is obviously reserving the good news for when he speaks.

Let me begin by detailing the reasons for the campaign, how it has progressed and the incredible amount of cross-party and cross-national support that it has received. We are talking about a single-track line that stretches a mere 12.5 miles between the Swindon locomotive yard and the western portal of the Kemble tunnel. The line was singled in the early 1970s. The necessity for redoubling stems from the self-evident limitations that are imposed on trains travelling in opposite directions on a single-track line. Doubling the track would provide a significant extra benefit. As passengers who use the line know only too well, delays and cancellations are frequent, the infrastructure cannot support an hourly timetable and delays are regularly exported from the line. Network Rail believes that significant demand from passengers and freight is being suppressed because of these limitations.

The second factor is the nature of the Swindon-Kemble line as a diversionary route. As the Minister will know, because I have spoken to him privately about this, the Welsh Affairs Committee's 10th report of the 2009-10 Session, which is entitled "Cross-border provision of public service for Wales: follow-up", noted:

It adds that the Severn Tunnel

6 Apr 2010 : Column 272WH

The relevant section of the report finishes by noting:

The Minister will also know, as I mentioned in my previous Adjournment debate, that the redoubling would

There are also additional benefits, such as building in rail capacity to support growth and regeneration in the south-west in the coming years, supporting freight movement and the cost saving to be achieved by closing the signal box at Minety. I will not elaborate on the scheme's further benefits, because the case has been well and truly made, but it is worth mentioning that supporting rail travel ties in with the Government's and, indeed, the Opposition's policy on a modal shift to supporting green travel and the green economy, which would lead to CO2 reductions.

If the Minister will indulge me further, I would like to take him on a quick diversionary route-he will be glad to know that that is my second and last rail metaphor-to clarify exactly where we are now on the redoubling and how we have got to this point. I have campaigned for the redoubling of the line for many years. Unfortunately, as he knows, the Office of Rail Regulation announced its funding plans for 2009-14 on 5 June 2008. Although we had the good news that the Cotswold line would be redoubled, it was announced that the Swindon-Kemble line would not receive funding. In my view, and probably in the view of the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew), the Swindon-Kemble line was perhaps more deserving than the North Cotswolds line.

Following that news, I called an Adjournment debate on 30 June, in which the then Transport Minister, the hon. Member for Glasgow, South (Mr. Harris), stated:

Subsequently, I was able to keep up pressure for reconsideration of the scheme. I did that through meetings, first, with the hon. Member for Glasgow, South and, subsequently, with the Secretary of State for Transport. On both occasions, I was accompanied by colleagues from Gloucestershire, including my neighbour the hon. Member for Stroud, who has been a long-time supporter of work on the line. Representatives of Network Rail and First Great Western were also present.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): My neighbour and I make common cause on this issue, which is very pleasing. I declare an interest, in that I was on the line this morning. The key point, beside the fact that there is to be a general election, is that we need to know now that the team will come over from the Cotswold line. That has to be the absolute priority. If it does not happen now, it will not happen this side of a decade. Does the hon. Gentleman agree?

Mr. Clifton-Brown: My neighbour is clairvoyant. I will make exactly that case a little later.

6 Apr 2010 : Column 273WH

The lobbying work proved effective. It was clear that despite the ORR's decision, support for the scheme was forthcoming from the hon. Member for Glasgow, South, the Secretary of State for Transport, Gloucestershire county council, the South West of England Regional Development Agency, the regional assembly, the district and urban councils and most, if not all, Gloucestershire MPs. The only thing missing was the funding.

The first steps to overcome that problem took shape when the Department for Transport committed £900,000, and the Welsh Assembly offered £100,000 towards a feasibility study. Some £20 million was put aside from the regional funding allowance for the project itself, but that still left a gap-the scheme had been estimated as costing £37 million before the new feasibility study was conducted.

On 3 September 2009, I attended the South West Regional Grand Committee, where I found that the Minister for the South West was another supporter of the redoubling scheme. At the meeting, he clearly stated:

As the Committee progressed, I challenged the Minister to produce one positive outcome from its proceedings. I must give him credit for taking up that challenge and writing to the RDA on 6 October 2009, suggesting that if it could produce

Next Section Index Home Page