HC Deb 08 July 1994 vol 246 cc563-83 9.34 am
Ms Joyce Quin (Gateshead, East)

I beg to move, That this House expresses concern at the growing inequalities between richest and poorest in Britain today and draws attention to the recent report of the Institute for Fiscal Studies entitled 'For Richer, For Poorer: the Changing Distribution of Income in the United Kingdom 1961–1991'; expresses its belief that gross inequalities contribute to economic inefficiency; draws attention to the inequalities which particular groups including the disabled experience; believes that a whole range of measures and policies are needed as well as a change of direction in existing government policy if the problems of inequalities and lack of opportunities are to be rectified; and calls on the Government to introduce urgent policies of a fiscal, economic, social and educational nature in order to bring such a change in direction about. Having been given the opportunity to introduce a motion of my choice, there are two reasons why I decided to speak about inequalities in Britain, lack of opportunities, and the huge and growing gap between richest and poorest in our society.

First, recently, a number of excellent and telling studies on the subject have been published. My motion refers to one of them—the report of the Institute for Fiscal Studies entitled "For Richer, For Poorer", which received considerable publicity and attention when it appeared a month ago.

My second reason is more fundamental and is rooted in my role as a Member of Parliament. It relates to my experiences in my constituency in the area, where I was born and grew up and which I have represented 15 years—first in the European Parliament and, since 1987, in the House. Witnessing the growth in inequality and poverty in my constituency is the more fundamental reason for tabling my motion. I see more poverty and inequality today in my constituency than I remember at any other period in my life. Unemployment and poverty seem more deeply rooted now than at any time since the 1930s.

I am sure that all right hon. and hon. Members are profoundly attached to their constituencies. That feeling can turn to anger and frustration if we feel that the living and working conditions in our constituencies, or in the country as a whole, are worsening.

Lady Olga Maitland (Sutton and Cheam)

Perhaps the hon. Lady could set some parameters. What is her benchmark of poverty today, bearing in mind that living standards have increased substantially over the past 10 years?

Ms Quin

I have only just begun my speech, and I will answer that point later.

When one sees, as I do, constituents who are constantly finding it difficult to make ends meet, for whom the day-to-day business of living is financially difficult and who are never able to afford treats or extras, that is close to poverty. The relentless grind that many people have experienced probably since the first recession in the early 1980s is difficult for them to tolerate. If, after I have developed my argument, the hon. Lady wants to intervene again, I shall be happy to allow her to do so.

The facts of the growth of inequality in Britain cannot be disputed. The Institute for Fiscal Studies report revealed that poverty has trebled during the years of office of this Government. It is described as a widening of the gap between rich and poor which is unprecedented in modern times. Inequality in the distribution of incomes increased dramatically during the 1980s, having previously fluctuated over only a small range since the early 1960s.

During the past 15 years, the richest 10 per cent. became almost twice as well off. The number of people in Britain with an income below half the national average more than trebled, to 11.4 million—one in five of the population. That occurred even though between 1961 and 1967 that category fell numerically and there was a drop in inequality in that particular era.

Perhaps not unexpectedly, there has been a growth in poverty among those out of work, especially among the long-term unemployed. When people are dependent on benefits which are then squeezed, their position becomes even more difficult. However, what has been most staggering during the 1980s has been the growth in poverty among those in employment. Many of us are deeply worried about that phenomenon.

The problem of low pay is well documented by various organisations with a remit to study the matter, such as the Low Pay Unit and the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux. I commend their work. As we know, the global figures translate into local examples. Over the past two or three years, I have had contact with my local jobcentres to see what sort of jobs were available. What I discovered was quite alarming. For example, a year ago there was an advertisement for a security guard on a 70-hour week at a rate of £1.85 per hour. What sort of wage is that for anyone to keep himself on, let alone a family? The job of a security guard is often difficult, if not downright dangerous. I am not sure how many hon. Members would want to do such a job for such long hours and for such little pay.

Of course, it is not just the level of pay that is at stake; it is the difficulty that such people then have in trying to contribute towards a better future for themselves. I do not know how people in such employment can find the money to pay into a personal pension scheme. The problem is that not only is someone working for low pay here and now, but he has little financial security to look forward to in the years ahead. That greatly worries many of us. Another job advertisement in the same batch a year ago was for an assistant hairdresser—a 39-hour week for £35, which is less than £1 per hour.

This week, I took the opportunity to find out from the same jobcentre to see the current jobs on display and it did not appear to me that matters had improved. One of the advertisements, again for a security guard—although without experience—quoted a wage of £1.40 per hour. It was for full-time hours with night shifts to be arranged. Another advertisement for a security guard, on the slightly better rate of pay of £2.30 per hour, said that the guard would have to work throughout the north-east and that the duties included patrolling, gatehouse duties and retail shops. It said that the preferred age was 30-plus. Many of us do not like age discrimination in job advertisements. Someone over 30 would be a mature worker, yet all that was being offered was £2.30 an hour. Such wage rates are unacceptably low, do not give people any job security and cannot be defended. I hope that they will not be defended by Conservative Members.

Those local examples are backed-up by the work of organisations such as NACAB, which has produced a series of brilliant reports over the past three years describing the problems of low pay and insecurity in employment. One report entitled "Hard Labour" was published in 1990; another entitled "Not in Labour" deals with the discrimination experienced by pregnant women in employment; and there is another, more general, report on unequal opportunities. All those reports would make excellent reading for hon. Members.

The "Hard Labour" report gives examples of various cases that have come to the attention of bureaux throughout the country. I shall cite two of them. The first is from a bureau in Yorkshire, which had a client who worked in a video shop from 10 am to 8 pm with no meal breaks. That contravenes the Shops Act 1950, but the woman was too scared to do anything about it in case she lost her job. That is a real threat, especially as the rules governing unfair dismissal are very much loaded against the employee who feels that he has been unfairly dismissed.

The second case comes from a bureau in Dorset. A supervisor in an amusement arcade was continuously on duty, without an assistant, for a shift of 13 hours. Not surprisingly, during that time he needed to use the toilet. While he was away a window was broken and his employer made a deduction of £40 from his wages, probably in contravention of the Wages Act 1986. When the NACAB client challenged the deduction, he was dismissed without notice.

It might seem incredible that those examples can be found in a civilised country, but they are really only the tip of the iceberg in that NACAB report. There have been some changes to employment protection since the report was published—I shall refer to those later—but nevertheless we know full well that the problems of low pay and sometimes appalling working conditions still very much exist, as is shown by the advertisements in my local jobcentre this week.

People on benefits and out of employment have also felt the pinch during the past 15 years. Pensioners, especially those who are entirely dependent on the state pension, have lost out because of the breaking of the link between pensions on the one hand and prices and incomes on the other—[Interruption.] Conservative Members are expressing disagreement, but it has been calculated that the Exchequer saved £5 billion from the breaking of that link.

Mr. Patrick Nicholls (Teignbridge)

For the sake of accuracy, will the hon. Lady remind the House that, although it was a Conservative Government who broke the legal link between the two factors, it was the Labour Government who found themselves unable to honour their link? Is it not more honest to have a system that we can live up to and pay for rather than introducing a link to push pensions up and then having to break it? If the hon. Lady doubts the accuracy of my remarks, she will find that they are well attested.

Ms Quin

The purpose of my motion is to show that inequality in Britain has widened dramatically over the past 15 years. The Government sat back and allowed that to happen. I do not believe that a Labour Government would have presided over a growth in inequality such as there has been over the past 15 years.

I am sure that, like me, the hon. Member for Teignbridge (Mr. Nicholls) has to confront many articulate pensioner groups who know very well the records of both the last Labour Government and this Government and who feel that they have lost out dramatically over the past 15 years.

Mr. Gary Streeter (Plymouth, Sutton)

Does the hon. Lady think that pensioners were better off in the late 1970s when inflation was running at 25 or 26 per cent. and the value of their savings plummeted, which meant that many of them were left in abject poverty?

Ms Quin

Given the overall situation at the time, I think that pensioners were better off. The pensioners to whom I speak strongly confirm my impression.

Conservative Members are simply unwilling to face reality. I do not claim that all previous Governments' record on equality was excellent, but the growth in inequality has been flagrant in the past 15 years and it seems to have been pursued as a deliberate act of policy.

In many ways, people face a kind of nightmarish board game in their personal lives. A single, unemployed person might go three places forward on discovering that his local council has, after all, found him accommodation, but might go back four places when the Department of Social Security says that it cannot lend him any money for the basics that would enable him to become established in that accommodation. An old person might go forward three places on discovering that he is eligible for a bus pass and can travel around, but back four places because he is too frightened to go out. A parent might go three places forward on discovering that he has been granted access to his child at weekends, but back four places when he discovers that he simply cannot afford to see his child. That is particularly topical following our moving debates on the Child Support Agency and its effects.

Many young people find it difficult to enter full-time education. They might go three places forward when they are given a place on an education course, but back four places when they learn that no grant is available, that they will have to take out loans because of their straitened financial circumstances or that they will not have access to housing benefit. They may go back even further if they believe that a life of debt faces them, particularly as employment opportunities are so limited for many students.

The growth in inequalities in Britain has not been reflected in other European countries. The extent of the growth of inequality in Britain is well out of line with other countries. Earlier this year, an interesting article by Andrew Glyn of Corpus Christi college, Oxford appeared in The Guardian. It said that the years of Conservative Government in Britain had seen an increase in inequality which is striking not only in itself but which seems larger than in any other European country. He supported his argument with an interesting table comparing United Kingdom and European inequality in employment rates, unemployment rates, unearned to earned income change, the ratio of women's pay to men's pay—the gap is. significant and larger than the European average—the definition of poverty according to Council of Europe standards and how that works out in terms of the percentage of the population, the top income tax rates and the changes in top income tax rates and in the share of the top 20 per cent. of incomes in the past 15 years.

Lady Olga Maitland

The suggestion that gross inequality exists in Britain compared with the rest of the European Community is extraordinary. Does the hon. Lady accept that this country has more people in jobs than any other European country?

Ms Quin

As part of my motion is about the poverty of people in employment, the hon. Lady's intervention hardly undermines my argument. Our unemployment rate between 1979 and today compares unfavourably with most European countries. Some countries, such as Germany, have experienced recession in recent years, but, none the less, in the past have had far lower unemployment than us.

Germany has undergone huge economic turbulence because of reunification with East Germany. Three per cent. of GDP was transferred from one part of Germany to another. The hon. Lady, if she is fair minded, will agree that we have not had to deal with such an economic transfer. Credit should be given to Germany for managing to cope with that.

The hon. Lady seems to imply that there are no data to back up my arguments comparing United Kingdom and European inequality, but I was quoting from a detailed article containing plenty of evidence by an academic at Oxford university. The hon. Lady may contest it if she wishes, but she would have to do so in as detailed a way as the article, which would not be possible in an intervention. I am not sure whether she will be able to do it if she wishes to speak later. The article contains a deltailed, worked-out argument with many references and it cannot be dismissed lightly.

Andrew Glyn concludes: But the greater inequality, apart from an appalling human cost, represented not economic efficiency but the systematic squandering of economic potentials manifested, for example, by unemployment, by the growth of low productivity employment encouraged by low pay, and by manufacturing industry failing to invest while dividends rocketed. Those issues can be taken up later.

Wages differentials have widened dramatically in Britain, whereas they have remained constant or have fluctuated only marginally in other European countries. On many occasions in the House, we have been told about the tremendously inflated salaries that are paid to people at the top of the scale while a growth in low income has occurred at the bottom of the scale. So many examples are already well known, some of which—those involving chairmen and chief executives of privatised water companies—have hit the headlines.

Only yesterday in The Independent I read yet another couple of examples. The contract of John Bellak, chairman and chief executive of Severn Trent Water, was terminated this year, but he received £512,000 in compensation and pension contributions, according to the company's latest annual report. He also received £226,000 in share options and £230,000 as company chairman. Bob Thian, chief executive of North West Water, where some employees face cuts of up to £6,000 a year because of job restructuring, received £674,000 when he left the company recently.

Such examples will hardly encourage a belief among people, particularly those on low incomes, that the Government are committed to wage equality and wage fairness. Ministers have failed to speak out against such irresponsibility and find it particularly difficult to speak persuasively against boardroom excesses which offend the British people's basic sense of fairness.

Many ex-Cabinet Ministers are among the beneficiaries of such decisions: Lord Tebbit, as Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, privatised British Telecom and he is now on its board; Lord Walker, who, as Secretary of State for Energy, privatised British Gas, is now on its board. There are many other examples, including Lords Young and Lawson and, indeed, the former Chancellor of the Exchequer, the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Thames (Mr. Lamont).

In view of that record, it is very difficult for Conservative Members to speak out against such excesses, but I hope that some of them will do so because they set a terrible example to the rest of the country, especially when the Government are so keen to promote wage restraint, although some of the people at the bottom of the scale need immediate help in the short term instead of being subject to wage restraint or wage reductions.

At key moments, the Government have appeared deliberately to foster the growth in inequality. I well remember the public's reaction to the Budget introduced by Lord Lawson in 1988, which seemed to promote inequality through the huge tax relief given to people at the top of the scale. The British people's reaction was hostile. The growth in inequality was bad in itself, but the Budget was also disastrous economically because it helped to fuel an inflationary import-led boom and, I believe, bore a great share of responsibility for the recession into which we plunged before our European partners.

One glaring weakness in the Government's arguments over the past 15 years is that if deregulation, low wages and poor working conditions are prerequisites for economic success, how was it that, after 10 years of that unpleasant economic medicine, we were the first in Europe to plunge into a lengthy recession? That fact is all too frequently forgotten when Conservative colleagues extol the advantages of a deregulated, low-wage economy.

There is an extraordinary contradictory belief that giving people at the top more money will encourage them to work harder, but only by giving people at the bottom less money will they be encouraged to work harder. That is a logical absurdity, and one which most people appreciate.

The Government still appear to believe that the trickle-down theory works and that if the majority of people are better off, it will automatically help those at the bottom. However, the theory has been shown not to work. During the United States presidential campaign, when people fortunately recognised that the theory did not work, trickle-down economics were described as "voodoo economics".

I refer the House to another article by Andrew Glyn of Corpus Christi college, which also appeared in the national press. It was entitled Why an unequal Britain is paying the price for the 'efficiency' fallacy". It is an important article which disproves the link between low pay and economic success. It refers to the fact that, across the industrialised countries as a whole, there is no macro-economic evidence to support the argument that greater equality is detrimental to efficiency. If anything, the article says, the opposite is true. It states: The fastest growing economies in the 1980s were also the more equal societies. We all pay for inequality—in higher taxes, poor health and high crime. From education to inheritance, from cradle to grave, inequality is a burden we cannot afford.… The problem is that while the medicine of inequality has been applied, the disease of economic underperformance has got worse. Growth under this Government since 1979 was lower than that achieved under Labour in the 1970s.

Andrew Glyn's arguments are very telling. That we all pay for inequality is proved by the fact that so many people who are in work but on exceedingly low incomes can make ends meet only by getting support from the state. The state recognises that, but we all have to foot a substantial bill because many employers pay such low wages. In the end, therefore, such policies are self-defeating, or even worse.

It is absurd to continue to peddle the belief that Britain can compete only through deregulation and that cutting wages and removing social protection will enable us to compete on cost with low-wage economies such as China and India. I do not believe that such crude deregulation is the way to deliver a high-wage, high-skill economy, which is what I hope that we all want. Slashing prices by cutting wages, training and investment may appear to deliver some kind of short-term advantage, but only at the cost of long-term economic and social decline. Our economy has been described, rightly, as a "closing down sale in a bargain basement".

The United Kingdom is in danger of having the worst of both worlds—the worst of the high levels of unemployment currently to be found in Europe, but also the worst of the US-style low-wage employment and rising in-work poverty, which is why I believe the problem of inequality is so severe today.

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cirencester and Tewkesbury)

The hon. Lady has tried to paint a dismal picture of this country's performance over the past 15 years and has produced a great many statistics to try to back up her argument. Surely, however, the real measure of success is the number of consumer goods that people have in their homes. Why is it that in 1979 only 39 per cent. of the bottom decile—or 10 per cent.—of the population had central heating, which is generally regarded pretty much as a bare necessity, whereas today a very respectable 69 per cent. of that bottom 10 per cent. has it?

Ms Quin

I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman refers to heating in a debate on inequality, especially when the Government's decision—

Mr. Clifton-Brown

Answer the question.

Mr. Streeter

Answer the question.

Ms Quin

It is true that many homes have central heating and regard it as a basic necessity, but I refer both hon. Gentlemen to the fact that, since the Government imposed value added tax on domestic fuel, many people can hardly afford to run their heating systems. If they would care to come to my constituency surgeries and listen to those who cannot pay their fuel bills, they might not take refuge in average figures. The Government's decision to charge VAT on domestic heating has a much worse effect in the less warm parts of the country. In my experience, the people who have most difficulty with heating bills tend to live in poorer, draughty accommodation, which makes the problem even worse. In some parts of the country, people have to have their heating on for almost all the year, or certainly for nine months at the very least. No matter how many times hon. Members care to take refuge in average figures, I can assure them that there is an enormous problem in the country as a whole because people cannot afford to run their heating systems.

Lady Olga Maitland

Does the hon. Lady accept, first, that fuel costs have been reduced because of privatisation and, secondly, that pensioners have had an increase written into their new pension rates for VAT on fuel?

Ms Quin

As the hon. Lady knows, the Opposition were keen to ensure that the measures taken to help pensioners and those on benefit should be as generous as possible. We do not think that they are. I am sure that the hon. Lady understands that there is also a real problem for those who are above benefit level but who are still badly off, such as the people I have described today who live on low incomes and who find it extremely difficult to meet any increases in fuel costs. I should like the Government to do a great deal more than they have done in creating jobs in energy efficiency and in ensuring that so many of the draughty homes which are lived in by some of the poorest in the land are made much more energy efficient. That would mean that those people would not have to fork out the large amounts that they are trying to find at present.

Mr. Clifton-Brown

I am sure, therefore, that the hon. Lady will give a warm welcome to my right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor's Budget in which he doubled the home energy efficiency scheme to help precisely the people whom the hon. Lady is describing—the poorest and pensioners who live in low energy-efficient households.

Ms Quin

I welcome any change, but I believe that the measures do not really meet the scale of the problem. Until they do, and until I no longer come across constituents who face the problems of high fuel bills in draughty accommodation, I will continue to raise the issues I am raising today.

The growth in unemployment and in long-term unemployment have contributed to real social divisions. I come from a part of the country where, at one time, a few staple industries provided employment for the majority of the working population in the area. Many of those industries have collapsed since 1979, particularly in the first recession which we experienced from 1980 to 1983. Although there was a kind of boom, a rather inflationary boom, after 1983, many parts of the country did not really benefit from that upturn in the economy. I refer particularly to the areas that were dependent on the older staple industries and where, although some new industries have come in—I strongly welcome that—there have not been enough new industries to take up the slack in employment opportunities.

In certain estates and certain urban areas, the majority of people have been out of work for 10 years or more. Children are growing up in households where there is no experience of employment. That is deeply worrying. It has contributed to the growth of what we call the underclass—an unpleasant term in itself. That lack of employment has contributed to the growth of certain types of crime. Before Conservative Members jump up and ask whether I am saying that the unemployed are criminals, I say that the answer firmly is no. I see too many unemployed people who are the victims of crime rather than the perpetrators of crime. However, we all know that where there are deep social divisions, where there is high unemployment and where there is a growth in inequality, as can be seen in many countries across the world, one has a society in which, unfortunately, certain types of crime, such as theft and car crime, tend to flourish.

Lady Olga Maitland

Does not the hon. Lady agree that, far from people committing crimes because of poverty, crime is often related to factors such as greed and trying to fuel a drugs habit?

Ms Quin

The salaries and pay-offs to which I referred earlier illustrate the concept of greed rather more than do my comments about the least well-off in society. Although Conservative Members are always resistant to the idea of there being a link between crime and social divisions, that view is, fortunately, not universal. I remember reading a speech by Baroness Denton in which she said that there was a clear link between social division, social decay and crime levels. I welcome the fact that some Conservatives are prepared to look at the issues as they are rather than as they would like them to be.

An unequal society in which there are gross inequalities of income distribution generates ill-health, not just for the people who are least well off. As has been proved in various studies—I refer to the article by Richard Wilkinson—unequal societies are often more conflictual and more stressful societies. That adds up to a considerable cost to the health system.

It is depressing, but not surprising, that Britain has increasingly suffered from many of the American-style social problems that accompanied the rise in wage inequality in that country. We have rising drug-related crime and rising lawlessness in our inner cities, infant mortality rates higher than those in comparable countries and more spending on ill-health and crime prevention as a result. All those issues need to be taken very seriously.

I am not surprised that one or two hon. Members who have intervened have implied that I have been talking on a gloom-and-doom basis. I am rather surprised that no one his yet used the time-honoured words, which Conservatives so often like to use about the Opposition, that I am talking Britain down. I do not believe in talking Britain down, but I believe in looking the problem in the face. The problem is not that we are talking Britain down, but that the Government are letting Britain down. They are letting the people of Britain down by their actions and by the way in which they have allowed inequality to grow in the past decade and during the whole time in which they have been in office.

Recent decisions have made things worse. The Government's decision to abolish the wages councils, for example, has reduced wages in various sectors. The Low Pay Network, in a fairly detailed study accompanied by a survey, concludes that the abolition of the wages councils has resulted in a substantial drop in pay rates across various sectors of the economy. The study refers to the retail sector, hairdressing, the clothing industry and the hotel and catering industry. The Government must pay particular attention to that study if they are to do something about the problem of low pay.

Lady Olga Maitland

Will the hon. Lady give way?

Mr. Roger Evans (Monmouth)

Will the hon. Lady give way?

Ms Quin

I will not give way again to the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Lady Olga Maitland). I have given way to her on four or five occasions. She seems to be a regular attender of Friday morning debates so she will, I am sure, hope to speak herself. In view of the number of interventions by the hon. Lady and the possibility, if she catches your eye, Madam Deputy Speaker, of her being able to make a speech, she will have ample opportunity to make her views heard.

Mr. Roger Evans

The hon. Lady has strikingly referred to her area as having once had a number of staple industries which provided a lot of employment. She said that they had declined and that they had been replaced, but not adequately. Can she explain to me, in terms of her motion, how what she is recommending would do anything to promote economic prosperity and more jobs for her region? What is the link?

Ms Quin

I am glad that the hon. Member for Monmouth (Mr. Evans) made that intervention. I am coming to those points shortly.

I have referred to VAT on fuel, so I shall not make further reference to it. I also referred briefly to the Child Support Agency. After we had our debate on Monday, a constituent came to my constituency office. He is an example of a classic case in which the CSA has simply proved to be the straw that breaks the camel's back. I implore the Government, therefore—we have here today the hon. Member for Bury, North (Mr. Burt), who is the Under-Secretary of State for Social Security with special responsibility for the CSA—to listen to all the cases that we have brought to their attention and to realise that we are talking not about an isolated number of cases, but about a huge number of cases in which people really feel that the CSA is the last economic straw that they can bear. I am not surprised that not only have there been suicides, but many people have felt suicidal as a result, including a constituent who came to my office this week. He would want his case to be referred to as one that shows the kind of hardship that the CSA creates.

Inequality affects many different groups in Britain today. Inequality affecting the disabled has exercised the attention of the House on many occasions in recent weeks and it is possible that other hon. Members will want to refer to that issue again today. I repeat the frequent demands of Labour Members that the Government accept the private Member's Bill, the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill, currently before the House, that they do not block it further and that they give the disabled, who have been subject to gross inequalities over a long time, some hope of Opportunity for the future.

There is also gross inequality between women's and men's average incomes, as I am sure all hon. Members recognise. That is especially true of many women in part-time and poorly paid jobs. Indeed, surveys show that if we continue moving towards equality for women's pay at such a slow rate, we shall almost be near the beginning of the 22nd century before it catches up with the average pay for men. I have also referred to the difficulties that men encounter in areas of the country such as mine. Indeed, in the intervention by the hon. Member for Monmouth, reference was made to the fact that not enough new industries have replaced the older industries, which have declined in areas such as mine.

It is interesting to consider some of the industries that have come to the north-east, especially Nissan in Sunderland, which is close to my constituency. It has brought some welcome jobs to the area and I am encouraged by the fact that the management of Nissan do not accept the deregulated, low-wage approach of the Government. Indeed, in evidence to the Select Committee on Employment, Nissan said clearly that it believed that the low-wage, low-skill approach to the economy was the route to economic disaster. It is also greatly encouraging that Nissan believes that the provisions of the European social chapter would not present it with any difficulties, because, in all cases, it already exceeds its provisions.

There is a great deal of hidden employment as well, especially in an area such as mine. Many women would like to work, but do not register as unemployed because either they do not have the possibility of working, due to lack of child-care facilities or being unable to afford those facilities, or because they live in areas of high unemployment and the chances of employment are so poor that it is not worth registering.

Let me also refer to the discrimination and inequality experienced by people from ethnic minorities. It remains true that wages and unemployment rates among members of ethnic minorities are highly unequal. Unemployment rates for ethnic minorities are more than twice the rate of the white population and the wages of some minority groups are persistently lower. We must look at that problem closely.

I imagine that Conservative Members may well say that we must aim for flexibility of work. I strongly support flexibility in the workplace, as do many Labour Members, but we do not support the situation where flexible working practices—part-time working and so on—amount to a lifetime of penalty rather than a lifetime of opportunity. In the right circumstances, flexible working, part-time working and different work patterns can be a tremendous opportunity for people, but, all too often, especially in the constituency cases with which I have dealt, people in such new employment patterns seem to be badly paid. Indeed, they are not only badly paid, but, as I said earlier, have few pension rights and entitlements and little financial security to look forward to.

What should be done about this situation? One of the most important things to do is simply to recognise the extent of the problem. There is a real problem in Government circles of people failing to appreciate the scale of the difficulties that are experienced by people out there, across the whole country.

I well remember an impressive report prepared by the Church of England entitled "Faith in the City". It was greeted by the then Prime Minister as Marxist and its contents were dismissed. I believe strongly that those working in churches are in an excellent position to experience the extent of the problems of inequality in our society because they tend to be based in inner-city areas where they encounter such problems at first hand. It is not only a few turbulent priests in the Church of England who are criticising Government policies in that respect. Recently, the new president of the Methodist Church made similar comments, as have members of the senior establishment of the Catholic Church. It is such a common pattern that it cannot be dismissed as the rantings and ravings of a few ideologically motivated clerics.

We also need a much bigger job creation package than anything we have seen up to now. [Interruption.] Indeed, it was extremely welcome that, after 10 years of saying nothing about full employment, we managed to get some kind of commitment to it from Ministers. That was a welcome change and we had not heard it for a long time from the Government. My hon. Friend the Member for Dunfermline, East (Mr. Brown) has, for example, called for a new environmental task force for young people which could combine training with environmentally based community projects.

I feel strongly about jobs in the environment. An enormous number of jobs can be created in environmentally related projects, partly in tackling pollution. It is sad that, despite the fact that the Government gave the privatised water companies a green dowry at the time of privatisation to bring our water standards up to European Community standards, there has been a failure to spend that money to bring the water quality up to the required standards as quickly as we would like and, more astonishingly, we have seen an attempt by the Government to repeal the European quality standards which they gave the privatised companies money to meet.

Lady Olga Maitland


Ms Quin

I am sure that the hon. Lady will have an opportunity to speak later.

Therefore, jobs in energy-saving projects and jobs in producing environmental technological equipment are also important. One of the areas in which Britain is failing to create jobs is in trade with the newly democratic countries of central and eastern Europe. Trading between those countries and our country is miles behind the volume of trade that the Germans, the French, the Italians and even the Dutch have managed to build up with those new countries. One important area of work would be in helping those countries, in a kind of trade and aid package, to meet some of the higher environmental standards which they need to meet in future.

One almost needs an environmental Marshall aid plan to tackle some of the problems in those countries. Such measures could create jobs in Britain because, as we know, many firms are capable of producing environmentally friendly equipment, such as equipment to curb emissions from power stations. Government Departments, especially the Departments of Employment and of Trade and Industry and, perhaps, also the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, should look at that area together much more closely than they seem to have done.

We must make fairness the central principle and guiding light of social security and tax policy. The Labour party is committed to progressive taxation, which is important for the future.[Interruption.] We need a fairer tax system so that we can bring an end to pensioner poverty and discrimination and improve public services. It is—[Interruption.] I hear the cries that are so frequently emitted during debates of this sort.

Mr. Nicholls

How much?

Ms Quin

Exactly. Conservative Members want to know exactly how much money is involved, as if I, in introducing a Back-Bench motion, could give a detailed account of a Labour Government's first Budget. Conservative Members know that such an expectation would be entirely unrealistic. I shall not get worked up about that.

Mr. Roger Evans

Will the hon. Lady give way

Ms Quin

I merely say—

Mr. Nicholls

Just answer the question.

Madam Deputy Speaker

Order. Seated interventions are not helpful. If the hon. Gentleman wishes to intervene, he should do so in the proper way.

Ms Quin

Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. As I have given way on many occasions, it is rather difficult to put up with so many seated interventions. I have extended to hon. Members the courtesy of allowing them to intervene. I am anxious to bring my remarks to a close.

It is extraordinary that Conservative Members should ask where the money is to come from. When the Government took office, they enjoyed a tremendous windfall from North sea oil. Previous Governments had not received such revenue and did not expect it. None of us knew that that would happen. The Government have had huge opportunities, especially when they ran tremendous Budget surpluses—they have been frittered away—to put into effect many of the measures that we are calling for 15 years later. There have been 15 years of wasted opportunity when money was available. That is extremely frustrating for those of us who have been putting forward the policies that I have outlined for so many years. It is absurd for Conservative Members to talk about money not being available when they had money and failed to use it to tackle the problems that I am describing. Indeed, they have presided over a period when the problems have become much worse.

I have talked about the problem of poverty and work, low pay and poor working conditions. I admit, however, that there have been some improvements over the past two or three years. Almost all these improvements have come about because of commitments arising from European directives. There are European directives that give employees the right to a written statement setting out their terms and conditions. Although the Government tried to water down the directive on maternity rights, it has helped some women at work in Britain. There was the recent and very welcome court judgment that the Government's policy towards part-time workers unfairly discriminated against women. Some of the extraordinary and glaring inequalities that faced part-time workers must now be redressed. Those are three examples of improvements that have been made or are being made. That has happened or is happening because of our European commitments.

It is no coincidence that the Government, having been forced to sign directives and, having failed to implement them, want to escape from the European social commitment so that, presumably, they will not be forced to introduce modest improvements in future. That is a disgrace.

Mr. Streeter

Will the hon. Lady give way?

Ms Quin

I am concluding my remarks, so I shall not give way again.

Mr. Streeter

I want to ask a question that arises from the hon. Lady's remarks.

Ms Quin


There has been a great deal of rhetoric from the Government over the past 15 years. It has been designed to try to appeal to people. The Government have sought to persuade them that they are committed to a better society. We all remember the previous Prime Minister, Lady Thatcher, who even compared herself to St. Francis of Assisi when she assumed office. The present Prime Minister talked about a country at ease with itself. He has talked also about a classless society. Yet after 15 years we have a growing and alarming crisis of inequality in our country. If the Government are not prepared to convert their rhetoric—it is entirely unconvincing in the light of their record—into reality, they should resign and give way to a Government who will.

10.33 am
Mr. Patrick Nicholls (Teignbridge)

First, I congratulate the hon. Member for Gateshead, East (Ms Quin) on bringing the motion before the House. I do not make a point of being in the Chamber on Fridays, but it struck me that she had tabled an interesting motion, and a brave one. I congratulate her on choosing the subject in the first place.

I do not entirely accept the hon. Lady's conclusion. I am sure that that will be a relief to her and no surprise. I am pleased that she has brought the subject before the House so that we can debate it.

The logic that runs through the hon. Lady's remarks is that in some way inequality, which is avoidable, runs through our society and permeates it. She suggests that it is almost built into the very structure of society. I do not accept that analysis.

We have a Prime Minister who was brought up in circumstances of some poverty. He went to a grammar school, but did not go to university. My right hon. Friend is now the Prime Minister. Shortly, he will be joined, as it were, by a new Leader of the Opposition. The hon. Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair)—assuming that it is he—was public-school educated. Both men—I say this in an unpartisan way—will be holding their offices because of their conspicuous talent. The fact that they came from different walks of life did not hold them back in our society and prevent them from fulfilling tasks that matched their abilities. The idea that inequality runs through the whole of British society in some avoidable and structured way is one that I cannot accept.

I completely part company with the hon. Lady when she says that she believes passionately and sincerely that if we could only bring about total economic equality, we would suddenly have paradise on earth. She referred repeatedly to the gap that exists between rich and poor. She made the classic error of saying that the Government have given tax handouts to the rich. I know of no tax handout from the Government to the rich since 1979.

The Government have certainly enabled the rich to keep more of their own money than hitherto. The idea that taxing the rich by levying 89 per cent. income tax on earned income and 98 per cent. on unearned income—in one inglorious year the Labour Government imposed a surcharge, which meant that on the top slice of income the rich paid 104 per cent. income tax—benefits the poor is potty.

The hon. Lady does not have to take my word for that assertion. I am sure that she will not do so. I invite her to study the Inland Revenue's statistics, which show the proportion of the tax take that is contributed by the richest members of our society. The figures are straightforward. In 1979, the top 10 per cent. of rich people—the wealthiest 10 per cent.—paid about 35 per cent. of the total income tax take. This year, they will be paying about 45 per cent. There is no magic about that. If we tax people at punitive rates, they will avoid tax, go abroad or not work.

When I started my working life as a lawyers' clerk, there were some barristers who I would seek to instruct, only to be told, "Mr. So-and-So is not available on Thursdays and Fridays." In my youthful naivety, I asked why that was. I was then told, "Mr. So-and-So does not work on Thursdays and Fridays because it is not worth his while to do so. He works only on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays." That is what happens when you overtax the rich. The result is that the rich contribute less to the total tax take.

Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North)

Before the hon. Gentleman becomes completely carried away with the problems of what the super-rich do with their money, perhaps he will explain why in the past 15 years the number of homeless people has risen, why the poorest 10 per cent. of households are 14 per cent. worse off than they were in 1979 and why 3,000 people sleep on the streets of London every night because they have no homes to go to?

Mr. Nicholls

As for the hon. Gentleman's last assertion, he well knows that it is not true. The rough sleepers initiative has cut dramatically the numbers of people sleeping rough on the streets of London.

Mr. Corbyn

That is because the Government stuffed them in hostels.

Mr. Nicholls

The hon. Gentleman always phrases his remarks in such eloquent terms. I shall leave that point for the moment.

I was dealing with the far more serious arguments that the hon. Member for Gateshead, East was advancing. She says that because the gap may have increased between rich and poor, that is a bad thing and something that bears down heavily on the poor. Some years ago, I was involved in a venture to ensure that a heart operation was carried out on a child from a third-world country. The father of the child was a naval commander in the navy of his country. He had an engineering degree. In terms of what that country had to offer, he was one of the rich people in it. In his country, the gap between that man's life style and the life style of those at the bottom of the heap was immeasurably greater than any gap in this country. The problem was that it was completely impossible to have a life-saving operation performed on his child in that country. He simply could not afford such an operation and there were no surgeons there capable of performing the operation anyway.

That man's child had to come to this country because, no matter how relatively poor one is in this country, there is a free national health service. It would have been complete nonsense to tell that man that the gap was in some way relevant to the welfare of his child.

Poor people do not have to use the gap to pay for the things that they need in their lives; they need money in their hands. What matters to the poor is not the difference between the rich and the poor, but how much money the poor have. However one considers the statistics, the position of the poor in this country, relative to their previous position, has never been better. That is because sufficient tax is generated within our economy to leave an incentive for the rich to earn and pay their tax and to generate enough tax to be spent on social benefits across a wide range of necessary items.

The hon. Member for Gateshead, East (Ms Quin) tried to make her case by referring to inequalities in respect of a security guard earning £1.85 an hour. That is obviously a low wage. However, a great many people know from experience that low pay is better than no job. Many people who experience a period of low pay move on to better-paid work in the end.

The hon. Member for Gateshead, East must face up to the fact that some people who earn low wages of the kind she referred to simply do not have the talents to offer to earn more. Let me give the hon. Lady what I hope she will feel is a perfectly fair example. Like all of us in the Chamber, the hon. Lady receives a Member's salary of £30,000 a year. Some people would say that that is not a great deal of money, but to the sort of people who come to my surgery and who go to the hon. Lady's surgery, £30,000 a year is a staggeringly large sum.

The hon. Member for Gateshead, East could certainly do a job which paid £1.85 an hour. However, I am not automatically or axiomatically convinced that someone earning £1.85 an hour could do her job as well as she certainly does it. That may seem a harsh and unkind thing to say, but it is realistic.

That leads me to another point. The hon. Member for Gateshead, East referred to the earnings link for pensions. She talked very eloquently about how the Government have broken the earnings link with regard to old-age pensions. She seemed to be holding out to pensioners the prospect that a Labour Government would one day produce an earnings link. However, there used to be such a link. It was introduced by the previous Labour Government—and what happened? In three of the four years in which the Labour Government had an opportunity to apply the link, they broke it.

When the Labour Government were criticised by their own Back Benchers for breaking that link, I recall that Lord Ennals, who was then Secretary of State for Social Security, was pinioned at the Dispatch Box for having failed to honour the legislation which his Government had introduced. He fell back on a statement which, even among us politicians, sounded lame in the extreme. He said, "My obligation in law is to consider the figures. My obligation in law is not to get it right." Honest politicians are led to that kind of subterfuge and double talk when, for the very best of reasons, they try to produce a structure which the country is simply unable to afford. That again is something which the hon. Member for Gateshead, East must face up to.

We live in a country where, under this Government at least, one recognises that inequalities will exist in the sense that talent is unequal. I think that I am right to say that the hon. Member for Gateshead, East has degrees from two universities. That is excellent and it says something about her academic attainments. I do not have degrees from a university. I did not go to a university. However, what unites us both is that we have been brought up and live in a society in which, irrespective of our talents, we can make the most of them.

We can all think of particularly hard cases—and that is hardly surprising in a population of 55 million—among our friends, relatives and the people who visit our surgeries. We can think of cases in respect of which life seems to have treated people very unfairly. If one comes from a stable home, of course one has a much better start in society than someone who does not come from a stable home. All those hard cases do not for a moment alter the fact that we live in a society of which we should be proud.

We live in a society in which, from the cradle to the grave, we have universal health care. We live in a society in which, whatever we may think about its standards from time to time, we have universal education. We live in a society in which the poorest members have benefits provided for them at a level which would be unthinkable for many of the richest people in other countries. It is about time that we faced up to those facts and admitted that one of the reasons for all that is that we do not pretend that the equalisation of people, with a range of diverse talents, is something that can be achieved or, if it could be achieved, would benefit the people in our society.

One need only consider the situation that used to exist in the former Soviet bloc countries to understand what happens to the very poorest, the most inadequate and the least talented members of society when one tries to produce that kind of economic straitjacket. I do not accept the idea that inequality runs through the system in this country in a way that damages the poor and which could be prevented.

However, there is a sense in which there is inequality in our society. There is a paradox. The Government have been in power since 1979. They have done many things which people thought were inconceivable. It would have been remarkable if anyone had said in 1979 that the trade union movement could be confined to barracks and to those tasks it should perform instead of trying to take over the governance of this country, but that has happened. There has been an explosion of home ownership under this Government. Council house sales have taken off. For the first time in their lives, ordinary people have been given the ability to earn, to build up capital, to build up their own homes and have tax rates which give them an incentive to work and not to cheat. All that amounts to a remarkable transformation.

The Labour party's current pitch is no longer red in tooth and claw socialism. It is, "We are Toryer than thou." There can be no finer compliment for what the Government have achieved than the fact that the future leader of the Opposition is trying to convince everyone, to the terror of people like the hon. Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn), whom I greatly value, that he is really a Tory at heart.

Mr. Corbyn

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Nicholls

I will give way to the hon. Gentleman in a moment.

There can be no finer tribute to the Government than that. The paradox is that, while all that has been happening on a national stage, the vice and cancer of political correctness has been beavering away. The inequality is that, in some peculiar way, the views, standards, decencies and common sense among the vast majority of people in this country, which are never articulated, but exist none the less, are being subverted by a tiny group of people who take unto themselves the right to set a political agenda without any reference to what people want.

That inequality runs through many strands of our national life. We can see it in the way in which language is used. We are no longer supposed to refer to chairmen. It probably says something about the incipient sexism of the left that it thinks that the title "chairman", which actually links women to humanity, should be replaced by addressing them as a piece of furniture.

Even if we move beyond the nonsense of non-sexist manhole covers and the fact that the Equal Opportunities Commission has been described as having its base in Personchester, we reach a stage where, in respect of language, the views and attitudes of the majority are thought to be inferior and have to be replaced.

The hon. Member for Gateshead, East referred to discrimination against black people as another example of the inequalities in society. An advertisement, placed I think by Greenwich borough council, appeared recently in a newspaper. It read: Black Social Worker Specialist in Adoption. The Adoption Team is seeking qualified and experienced Black Social Worker to contribute to the good Adoptive Services offered by the Agency. I toyed with the idea, but in the interests of good order did not do it, of reading that advert out and using the phrase "white social worker", and then saying that I saw nothing improper in that, simply so I could then bask in the howls of indignation from the Opposition Benches. However, on looking more closely, I realised my error and saw that the advert referred to "a black social worker".

If anybody dared to place a newspaper advertisement calling for a white social worker, there would be an outcry, and the Commission for Racial Equality, as quick as a flash, would create absolute mayhem. Of course, it does not matter because the advertisement was for a black social worker. Can hon. Members imagine the damage that is done when the host community see such advertisements? What good does it do the ethnic minority to have fear inflamed among the host community?

Mr. Corbyn

What host community?

Mr. Nicholls

I will give way to the hon. Gentleman in a moment.

That inequality is far more dangerous than anything that we heard about from the hon. Lady.

Mr. Corbyn

The hon. Gentleman's remarks are becoming extremely offensive to a large number of people in this country. [Interruption.] I am not bothered personally, I just think that the hon. Gentleman is offensive to many others. Perhaps he would care to reflect for a moment. He used the term "host community". A large number of black people were born in this country. They are second or third generation of their parents or grandparents who migrated to this country. They would find it offensive that the hon. Gentleman uses terms such as "host community".

The hon. Gentleman should understand that local authorities of all political persuasions advertise for black adoptive parents because of the problems of racism, the alienation of black families and black communities, and the feeling that black people, when talking about adoption or black children, would like to be able to talk to a black social worker. Is that really so wrong or so bad? Should not we at least recognise the depth of racism and the alienation that exists among people in those communities? The hon. Gentleman's arrogance seems to know no bounds.

Mr. Nicholls

The hon. Gentleman is the genuine and uncleaned-up version of the unreconstructed left. All that he has to do on Monday is to read Hansard and substitute the word "white" for the word "black" and then wonder about the matter. Here we have the typical attitude of the left in trying to ban even the use of certain words. The hon. Gentleman criticised me for using the words "host community" because it might offend people of second and third generation. He must understand the damage that such an advertisement would cause in a country of perhaps 22nd-generation people, who know—and they are right—that if it said, "White social worker required", it would cause outrage. That is inequality, and it needs to be dealt with.

Let us consider what has happened in other ways. For example, I refer to the legislation which first decriminalised homosexual acts between consenting adults in private, which was introduced for perfectly decent and tolerant reasons—that what adults do in the privacy of their own bedrooms which does not cause damage or offence to anybody else should be no business of anyone else. That was the aspiration, but what has happened since? We now live in a society in which even some Conservatives seem to be frightened of saying that a homosexual couple living together, be they male or female, are not in a normal, stable situation which is not in any shape or form comparable with a heterosexual marriage.

What sort of unequal society are we living in when a High Court judge can think it appropriate to grant custody to a lesbian couple who, although they represent themselves as a couple, both claim lone parent supplement? How can that contribute to equality in society when the views of the minority are imposed on the majority? I cannot think of a more unequal way of proceeding. It is very dangerous indeed.

For example, I now refer to the inequality that arises when what one might call minoritarianism is dumped on the country. What on earth is happening when 90 per cent. of people in this country who identify themselves as Christians—not card-carrying Christians; not people who are on social terms with the Bishop of Birmingham, but people who regard themselves as Christians—suddenly find that Christianity is to be taught in schools only in conjunction with the teaching of a number of other faiths? Yes, that is appropriate in certain areas, but why on earth have people in rural areas such as Teignbridge to be told that the faith which they have held dear and which their grandparents and forebears have held dear for hundreds of years are to be taught in the wilds of Devon, together with Buddhism, Sikhism and so on?

Mr. Donald Dewar (Glasgow, Garscadden)

I find the hon. Gentleman's line of argument rather interesting and extraordinary, but I want to make sure what he is saying. He referred to the judge who made the controversial decision on what he thought was the best interests of a certain child. Is the hon. Gentleman saying that the interests of a minority should not be protected at law because they might be unacceptable or strange to the social customs of the majority?

Mr. Nicholls

If any society which has any confidence in itself, and this society should have sufficient—[Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman might not agree with me, but I am sure that he will want to give me a hearing. A society should have sufficient confidence, in the way in which it rules and regulates its own affairs, to make certain judgments. This House exists to make certain judgments about the way in which we conduct ourselves. I will now answer the hon. Gentleman's question directly. I find it truly stunning that a lesbian couple should be treated as though they are running a unit which is equivalent to a heterosexual marriage. I find that deeply offensive, and the vast majority of people in this country would also regard it as bizarre. Not many people have this forum or my arrogance or confidence to make that point, but I have no doubt how people are thinking about that matter.

We need a number of things. We certainly need Ministers such as my hon. Friend the Minister who have the confidence to resist the siren move toward acceptance of ideas such as lesbian couples being completely normal. We need Ministers who, when working within the system, can make sure that they can resist the loving embrace of the civil service. We need hon. Members who realise that the standards of morality that they bring from their constituents, friends, relatives and supporters can be carried through into legislation. We need hon. Members who are prepared to articulate that interest.

We need police who have the confidence to believe that when they apprehend criminals those criminals will be treated properly. We must abhor the situation in which, years after the murder of PC Trevor Blakelock, when there were 200 witnesses to a murder that was committed by 12 people, the only people before the criminal courts in relation to that monstrous crime are the two policemen who investigated the original offence.

We need a society, a political system and a governing body with the confidence to say that we have been brought up in a fine, decent country which, even now, is probably the finest place in the world to live. We need the confidence to assert the standards of morality that enable us to savour that. That is the sort of equality that I look for, not the economic mishmash of the hon. Member for Gateshead, East.

10.56 am
Mr. Denis MacShane (Rotherham)

I am not quite sure of the protocol, Madam Deputy Speaker. There is to be a statement at 11 o'clock. Will I be able to resume my speech after that?

Madam Deputy Speaker

Yes. The debate will be interrupted at 11 o'clock for the statement, but the hon. Gentleman will then have the right to continue his speech thereafter.

Mr. MacShane

We have had an extremely interesting debate so far. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead, East (Ms Quin) for the terms of her motion, and I look forward to hearing a Conservative Member address the issues that she has raised. I look forward also to hearing the Minister, one of the rare Ministers who knows of life from north of Watford to Oxford, inform and entertain us.

I draw attention to page 4049 of today's Order Paper on which a motion stands in my name for debate in October. The subject of that motion is relevant to today's debate. Line 5 of the motion refers to a ballet of their non-managerial employees". The correct word is "ballot". I am grateful to the Clerks for their help in wording the motion. Of course, ballots are dear to Opposition Members—they are the quintessence of democracy; they allow everybody to be equal in an organisation or before the law. Of course, Conservative Members are practised in and at home with ballet. There is a considerable difference between the two words. I hope that before the motion comes before the House it can be reworded.

I shall try to begin my speech by referring to the earnings dispersion league table in the report of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development on employment outlook published in June last year. That showed a considerable increase in earnings dispersion in the United Kingdom since 1979—a date chosen by the statisticians of the OECD, who were unaware of any events that might have taken place in 1979. The OECD report shows that whereas in the United Kingdom there has been a dramatic increase in—

It being Eleven o'clock, MADAM SPEAKER interrupted the proceedings, pursuant to Standing Order No.11 (Friday sittings).

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