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The Earl of Longford: My Lords, I hope that it will not depress the noble Lord and that he will be pleased to know that in this House the word Christianity was introduced for the first time into the last big Education Bill as a result of the initiative of the noble Baroness, Lady Cox.
I realise that in many respects I have described a depressing scene to your Lordships today. As it is St. Cecilia's day, I shall use a musical analogy and say that my speech has been written in A flat minor. At the same time, I do not wish to assert that all is wrong with the younger generation--far from it. I quote again from the aforementioned headmaster's address in Boston:
I believe that the younger generation deserves better of us, the older generation, than the standards currently set before them. Therefore I welcome a recent remark of the Prime Minister: that good schools can be a lifeline out of poverty, the ladder to a whole new life. I welcome, too, some remarks made by the Education Secretary in her crusade to stop the disintegration of the English language by dubbing it her "war on communication by grunt".
At the same time I must point out that if the Government wish to rid us of the yob culture, the maintenance of the belief in "market forces" or the "laws of the market" in certain directions inevitably
Baroness Gould of Potternewton: My Lords, I am tempted to respond to some of the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Balfour, but I shall refrain from so doing. I shall pick up the theme of poverty to which my noble friend Lord McIntosh referred.
Earlier this year, we had a debate in your Lordships' House on the report produced by the European Select Committee on the European poverty programmes. The then Minister, the noble Viscount, Lord Astor, stated, at col. 1422 of the Official Report of 9th June, that,
That statement was in direct contradiction to the Government's own statistics, not those of the EC as implied at the time. The document of the Department of Social Security, Households Below Average Income (DSS 1993), indicated that the number of individuals in UK private households with income below half the national average rose between 1979 and 1991 from 4.4 million to 11.6 million before housing costs, and from 5 million to 13.5 million after housing costs.
The DSS report demonstrates that the Government's assertion that substantial increases to the rich would trickle down to the benefit of the poor was a fallacy. In reality, the poorest tenth of the population saw a drop of 17 per cent. in their real income while the top 10 per cent. saw a rise of 62 per cent. The number of children living in families with incomes below the poverty line trebled from 1.4 million to 4.1 million. It might be assumed that those figures relate to the growth of one-parent families. However, that group makes up only about 20 per cent. of the figure. The remaining 80 per cent. are two-parent households. The position for lone parents has nevertheless deteriorated. In 1979, 19 per cent. were living in poverty, compared with the current 59 per cent.
The largest most impoverished group is low paid workers. The gap between those who earn most and those who earn least is now wider than at any time since 1886 when figures were first collected. The Government are always ready to blame a worldwide recession for their economic dilemmas. But the widening of the pay gap--the main cause of inequality--is not a global phenomenon. Only in Britain and the USA--the two countries which have pursued deregulation most vigorously--have pay inequalities increased so sharply.
Last year's abolition of the wages councils had a significant effect on wage levels and there is no doubt that pay will continue to deteriorate in those low paying sectors. According to a report published today from the Council of Europe, based on its own criteria, we now have one third of full time workers being paid what amounts to poverty wages. Britain is now the only country in Europe without some form of legal pay protection for the lowest paid. Employment rights, maternity provision and pensions are among the worst in Europe. What we have seen in Britain is social devaluation--an attempt to gain a competitive advantage by reducing earnings, rights and living standards.
It is not possible to look at the reasons for the growth in poverty without at least taking note of the inequalities in our taxation system. Again, it is the low income groups and the poor who are hit disproportionately. Only those earning £64,000 a year pay less tax now than in 1979. The substantial tax cuts for the rich were almost wholly financed by reductions in the value of pensions and benefits, the least well off again subsidising the rich. And there are seven new taxes still to come--a further betrayal of election promises--which will cost the average family £360 a year or £7 a week in extra tax. That might not seem over much for those who can afford it, but for some it will be another drastic cut to their already meagre budget.
Financial deprivation is graphically illustrated in research by the Food Commission which indicates that the income for the 1.5 million families living on basic social security benefit does not include enough to pay for the diet of a child in a Victorian workhouse. Tom White, the chief executive of the National Children's Home charity, for whom the research was carried out, said:
A further study on the effects of poverty published in the British Medical Journal earlier this year indicated that poverty rather than personal behaviour is the greatest risk to health. The study showed that mortality rates in the most deprived areas in the north are now as bad for some age groups as in the 1940s. The evidence prompted the BMJ editorial to say that the widening of income differences and the growth of poverty during the 1980s were unprecedented.
A comparison of health and social inequality in Europe by Chris Power of the Institute of Child Health identified that cutting the gap between the rich and the poor could bring about substantial improvements. But it is for the Government to make those improvements. Only they can determine the priorities; only they can give hope to the unemployed, the low paid, the poor and the deprived. Only the Government can decide whether to put welfare to work rather than cut benefits and create poverty. The Secretary of State for Social Security last Friday gave an inkling that there could be a change in the Government's approach. It now appears that he accepts that there is a correlation between an inflexible benefit system, the widening of wage differentials and
We need legislation and government action that will improve the real quality of lives referred to by the Minister in her opening speech. However, that is not evident from the gracious Speech. In particular, the jobseeker's allowance will cut in half the amount of time for which unemployed people will get contributory benefit. Eligibility for the new allowance will be more restrictive than at present and the rate paid to young people under 25 will be cut. The Government themselves estimate that in the first year 90,000 claimants will lose their entitlement to benefit completely and that a further 150,000 will have to switch to means-tested benefits, often at a reduced rate. I am sure that the response will be that it is in order to create jobs and to give people jobs. But they will be low paid and part-time jobs. What we want, and what should happen for the unemployed, are proper and real job opportunities.
The poor will not only be penalised by the increase in gas prices. They will also be blatantly discriminated against by the proposal to introduce a 5 per cent. discount for those who pay by direct debit--presumably to ensure that bills are paid on time. But there is no discount for those who pay in advance--the people with little money who have to pay by using coin or token meters. They could pay as much as £26 a year more than those paying by direct debit. That is another example of the ideology of increased competition being paid for by the less well off. We need perhaps to contrast that with the report yesterday of the pay rises being awarded to the directors of British Gas.
Finally, I wish briefly to refer to the Government's plan to cap housing benefit, leaving tenants to find the difference out of other benefits, be evicted, or move to cheaper and poorer quality housing. The freeing of the housing market has provided choice and opportunity for some, but that choice is an elusive dream for those without bargaining power--the low paid, the unemployed and a growing number of the young and the aged. This at a time when homelessness is on the increase, particularly among 16 to 17 year-olds.
Every aspect of unequal Britain is mutually reinforcing. Unequal pay is linked to unequal taxation, unequal social provision, unequal gender treatment and unequal modes of governance. It is the Government's responsibility to understand the interaction of all those factors on people's lives and to act to correct the imbalances of the free market.
It would be welcome to hear from the Minister that the Government appreciate the reality of the levels of poverty and that they will bring forward legislation to improve or at least alleviate that poverty and deprivation. Poverty, social deprivation and disadvantage stifle opportunity, thwart initiative and destroy hope. Urgent and radical action is required to
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